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Rane Lavita in the case of the:

TEN THOUSAND SUSPECTS


by Rayanda

This is a work of fiction. All of the characters and events portrayed in this work are either products of the author's
imagination or are used fictitiously.

TEN THOUSAND SUSPECTS. Copyright © 2003-2009 by Rayanda Arts. Protected by a Creative Commons 2.5
license: You are free to share and distribute this work for noncommercial purposes provided you retain attribution
to Rayanda Arts and make no modifications or derivative works. This copyright notice must be retained on any
electronic or printed copies.

www.RayandaArts.com
TABLE OF CONTENTS

READER ADVISORY ii
CHAPTER 1 1
CHAPTER 2 16
CHAPTER 3 30
CHAPTER 4 40
CHAPTER 5 51
CHAPTER 6 66
CHAPTER 7 79
CHAPTER 8 92
CHAPTER 9 101
CHAPTER 10 112
CHAPTER 11 121
CENTERFOLD 133
CHAPTER 12 134
CHAPTER 13 143
CHAPTER 14 154
CHAPTER 15 164
CHAPTER 16 175
CHAPTER 17 184
CHAPTER 18 197
CHAPTER 19 205
CHAPTER 20 213
CHAPTER 21 224
CHAPTER 22 235
CHAPTER 23 247
CHAPTER 24 258
CHAPTER 25 272
CHAPTER 26 287
CHAPTER 27 295
CHAPTER 28 305
CHAPTER 29 317
CHAPTER 30 323
COMING SOON 339
Ten Thousand Suspects RayandaArts

CHAPTER 1

In a few masterful strokes I capture the upthrust and sigh with


unadulterated pleasure. Ahh. But fruk, I'm ravenous. One more
stroke, and I'll be ready to smack my lips on pretty well anything.
The person who said that it's possible to have too much of a good
thing must have been the same fool who said that you can't
improve upon nature. I turn an admiring gaze from my painting of
Mount Rundle's dueling peaks to the monstrous beauty itself, and a
flash of light from below the summit ridge catches my eye.
Thought so. Just a pack of climbers advertising to heaven
that they've arrived.
Another flash. Followed by sparks.
I grab my binoculars and zero in on three hikers malingering
on a buttress ridge. One is sitting, reading a book, while the other
two enjoy the view of themselves in a mirror. Too bad it's a clear
day. Any old lightning bolt would give them enough of a kick to stop
preening themselves long enough to write home:

Hi Bunny Buns! We were up on this mountain that's way


bigger than it looks on the telly, believe you me, Love. Crikey,
lightning zapped--like totally fried--our credit cards. So could you
send….

We'd rather lose our virginity, integrity and sanity than our
credit cards. Could be because all bad credit is honored in Hell, that
celestial burb on the wrong side of Heaven.
I focus the binoculars on the--Whoa! The rock under my right
foot slips out from under me, and I teeter forward on the edge of the
rib I'm perched on. I glimpse down at hundreds of feet of sheer
vertical ending in a murderous ledge littered with rock coffins. I
jump back and keep my obscenities to myself. The mountain never
gives the last word to any mortal.
A third flash, this one higher up.
I scan the peaks above the climbers. Nothing. I lower the
binoculars, and a shadow plunges through my view.
What the hell?!
I jerk the binoculars down sharply to get whatever it was
back into view.
Ah. A boulder bounces off the blue-gray wall of rock before
disappearing behind the overhang of another ridge. Intoxicated by
their nearness to the divine, those shitterbrains must have kicked

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away a piece of the mountain right into the eyes of the lesser gods
hovering between them and the earth.
Guess what, Bunny Buns?! We knocked off a piece of the
mountain. Blimey, the world's falling apart.
I scan back to the top of the bluff. Only two of the hikers
come into view. One with his back to me steps behind a rock, while
the other, a hulk of a man in a Homburg and burgeoning green
jacket, holds up a camera to shoot him. Guess they can't see
anything else worth shooting.
Eyeing the sun-broken rock beneath my feet, I make sure it's
secure then go back to my painting and soothe the sky with an
ermine brush dipped in azure. A shadow clouds the sky.
I look up.
A hawk.
"Enjoying the view, Rane?" a stranger's voice says over my
shoulder.
Turning around and stepping back, I see a man, standing tall
and proud like the mountain he's dwarfing behind him. "Not
particularly," I say, looking right at him. Although he's wearing
casual clothes, his face has a starched quality that effectively
masks his intent. Is the sun playing mischief with my eyes, or did
someone chop off the top of his head and plunk down a florescent
yellow mop?
"The signs in these parts tell you not to mess with the
wildlife," I add. "That means everyone and everything that isn't a
tourist."
"Including Bambi?" He gives me a secret smile, smarmy in
its familiarity.
My words fly by him in the breeze without ruffling him in the
least. I flip down the brim of my canvas hat to keep his glare out of
my eyes. "How do you know my name?"
"If you don't want anyone to know your crimes, then don't
sign your name to them. That's one mother of an ice-cream cone."
Bloody hell, there are just some things in life you can't
escape. Go to the ends of the Earth, or to the Moon and turn over
any rock. And sure as hell, a critic will pop out. A lot of creeps avoid
paying taxes, but it's damned well impossible to avoid being taxed
to hell by critics.
Mounting suspicion runs roughshod over my chagrin. He
wants something from me. Something that he has no intention of
asking for. At least not with mere words.
"If you don't get lost, I'm going to call the cops." I throw down
my brush, grab a palette knife and point it at him.
"We're in the wilderness," he says, his eyes catching the
glint of the blade.

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"We're in an echo chamber crawling with sightseers. One


scream, and you'll be buried under an avalanche of tourists."
He steps towards me, a cutesy smile twisting his lips like I
have ice-cream smeared on my face and he's not going to let
anything stop him from licking it off. The fool's baiting me to use the
knife.
"Darien!" a woman's voice echoes around us.
He mouths something incomprehensible as he swings
around in the direction of a towering blonde further down the slope.
She waves at him, her long, thin limbs gyrating like an agitated
spider's.
He signals her to wait. Then as he turns back to me, I launch
my knuckles straight into his venomous smile. Before he can
retaliate, my boot helps him down onto the rock face. He lets his
body rag doll into my carryall bag filled with painting supplies.
Laughing like a lunatic with a mind-blowing secret, he springs to his
feet and charges at her instead of me.
Jerk. Dumb, dumb, fruking dumb jerk. What was all that
macho crap about? Why did I have to go and sock him? I could
have diffused his ego in a way that would have helped me learn
what he was really after. So much for a quiet day of meditating,
painting and strolling amongst the fragile yet ruthless, unforgiving
beauty of an alpine meadow.

In my beater, I rattle and rumble down the sinuous road to


the highway leading back to Calgary. Suddenly, the engine starts to
sputter, and I swerve to a stop. I stomp my foot and have to retrieve
it from the hole in the floor. "You rotten piece of garbage!" I scream,
clutching the steering wheel and forcing it to vibrate along with me.
I get out, check under the hood, take a flying kick at the fender then
get on my cell.
"Yo, Chanlee, you witch. You said my beater would choke on
me. The regulator's shot, so the alternator's going bonkers." I try
with unrelenting futility to kick some life into it. "Coming with me to
the unclaimed vehicle auction on Saturday?"
"Can't. I'm working Friday night. But you're going to miss
your workout for the fifth day in a row. Keep this up, Rane, and
you'll flunk your physical again. Buck up, kiddo, you want to take a,
'Yes sir, she's a fighting machine.' to Europe with you, don't you?
Without it, you're not going to be sexy enough to nab the clients
who'll pay you obscene retainers to find their stolen fakes."
"Whaddya mean I'm going to miss my workout? It's not you
who has to haul her butt back up the mountain to get help."
"I'll send Bruno to give you a lift."
"So you're on with him again?" I say. His name grates like
the sound of my faithless junk heaps before they die on me.

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"We weren't really off."


"Whatever. You threw his stuff outside to rot in the rain and
changed the locks after you tattooed his backside with your boot."
"I notice you haven't told Fitz to get lost. Heehaw, heehaw."
"That's different."
"Uh-huh."
"Why keep jerking Bruno's chain? There's no way in hell
you're ever going to saddle yourself with any guy whose last name
is Toothill, sings like he's wearing someone else's false teeth and
always looks like he's trying to shrug off his face. What are you
afraid will happen if you're honest with him for once?"
"Ha! You should talk. You haven't told Fitz you're splitting for
Italy in--"
"Ah, don't sweat it with the ride," I say, steering the
conversation back onto wussier ground. "I'll bus it, and be there for
the workout tomorrow after I make a delivery for Mabie-Toogod.
She said that when I drop off the papers I should ask the guy if he
could use a hand. She didn't say with what."
"The mood you're in, either he gives you a job, or the city is
going to have another homicide. Just don't take a gun on your
delivery."
"When you going off graveyard?"
"Switching to days on Monday."
"Being a cop can sure take the sunshine out of your life.
When you're not prowling the streets at night, you're snoring the
day away, and in-between you're kicking Bruno in and out of your
bed." I pace around the car. "Let's get something going for Monday
night."
"With the guys?"
"Wouldn't you rather have a bad ass time?"
"Might as well, Bruno's flying off tomorrow to hawk bull DNA
to some fat cats in Atlantic City."
"Great. We'll share Fitz."
I hang up, wondering if she's laughing. Because I'm not. I
give the car door a ram kick and jump back out of the dust storm. I
lose my footing on the shoulder and roll down the bank into a bed
of Pink Pussy-toes. Hobbling back up the bank and around the car,
I open the door to the sound of a car screeching down the hill.
Some maniac in a blinding gold import is driving fast and wild like
he's aiming to send me from here to kingdom come. The import's
low-slung, so it should hug the ground in the curve.
Hell! It's tailspinning!
I dive onto the hood of my wreck just as the back end of the
import scrapes the dust off the soles of my shoes. Not content with
taking my door and other chunks of metal with him, the driver
growls, "Get off the road!"

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Catching a glimpse of him, I see it's the psycho who can't tell
the difference between duelling mountain peaks and ice-cream
cones. He has a small boy up front with him. So I wait until the
maniac careens his phallic weapon around the next curve, leaving a
trail of smoke and rubber, before I damn him with every
godforsaken curse I can think of.

When I left this placid September morning for a retreat in the


land of giants, it was still summer in the city. Now here I am
watching aspen trembling from green to gold while I wait in Banff
for the bus. To kill the boredom, I pull out my sketch pad and do
one fruking sketch after another of the hikers and the psycho. His
car is the only thing that doesn't come out looking deranged. The
stench of mentholated upchuck drenched in urine wafts over me
from behind. I glance over my shoulder and catch a disheveled
street dweller peering at my sketch pad. His sneering smile is even
filthier than his face.
Closing the pad, but standing my ground, I say, "Shove off!"
Cackling to himself, he scratches his ratty toque and shuffles
off, taking his brand of garbage odorizer with him.
There's nothing left to do but wait. Sketch and wait. And wait
some more for another chance to redeem myself by passing the
physical section of the police training that trashed my hopes of
getting into the service last April. Everyone thinks that all I want to
do is round up enough cash to fly me back to Europe. 'Cause that's
what I've been telling everyone, but what I really want to do is kick
ass on the tests next month. That'll blast some of those nagging
maybes out of my future. Talking about maybes, without wheels,
how the hell am I going to make the delivery for Mabie-Toogod
tomorrow?

Yesterday, it took me five hours to make the one hour trip


back to Doré Parc, where I live. Then it took another hour to get
into my apartment on the fourth floor because there was a fire
scare on the fifth floor. But today I'm not losing any time getting to
Mabie-Toogod's because I dusted off my mountain bike.
I skip up the stairs of her spanking new Victorian house out
in the tulies and nearly trip over a wooden box in the porch. There's
a note addressed to me on the box:
Here are the books and papers for Professor Faule. You
can contact me at my office if you should require further
information. Can you find sufficient time in your schedule
to join me for tea tomorrow?
Typewritten yet. That's about as close to impromptu as she
gets.
I scribble on the note,

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How about Sunday?

and stick it on the lewd tongue of the gargoyle above the door. Who
or what does she think she's scaring away with this thing? It's
pukey, not scary.
That done, I reach down to pick up the box and end up
sitting on it. The damned thing must weigh fifty pounds. And smart
me took the rack off the bike so I could go faster. Great, now I'll
have to park the bike and do some bus hopping.
It only takes two hours to make the fifteen minute delivery
back to the inner city where Faule lives. I drop the box on the path
leading to his Craftsman style bungalow and collapse onto the box.
My fingers feel like they've been permanently fused into right
angles.
Judging by the house with its arbored gate, green shingle
cladding, hanging baskets and square columns atop fieldstone
pedestals, I'd say that old Faule is a quaint old bird. I eye a swing
anchoring the left end of the porch that extends the full width of the
house. Even the porch floor looks more comfortable than this box.
However, almost half of the porch is merely decorative because the
house projects forward about three feet on the right, leaving the
porch too narrow on that side to sit in comfortably unless I turned
sideways.
A crow perches one-legged on a weathervane crowning the
roof.
Too, too quaint.
But Faule'd better give me a tip, or so help me he won't like
what I'll do with this box.
Damn. My nose is dripping, and all my Kleenex and stuff is
in my bike bag. Even my comb.
While I'm rubbing my nose on my sleeve, the front door
opens and a roly-poly man stuffed into a navy pinstriped suit, steps
onto the porch. He tugs on the buttoned-up vest that scarcely
covers his barrel then hesitates before descending the stairs. He's
probably deciding whether to roll down. Pigeon-toed and
knocked-kneed though he is, he flies down the stairs towards me in
his fleece-lined slippers. He looks too much like an oversized
cannonball to suit me. I jump out of his line of fire and into a faded
yellow rose bush.
"Al Faule," he says, sweeping up the box with one hand and
rescuing me from the thorny clutches of the bush with the other. His
hand feels like sweaty putty. "Rane, isn't it?" He says my name with
a lisp so it sounds like Wayne. I nod and he smiles, a smile that
only someone made of putty could execute. His whole face

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becomes one dimple then settles back to a half dozen smaller


dimples, including one on the end of his nose.
"Have time for coffee?" he asks.
"As long as I don't have to run to the store to get it."
Leaving the mild-mannered exterior behind us, we enter the
house and an explosion of candy colors hits us from all
directions--from the walls, furniture and overabundant accessories.
I look down at my avocado track suit. Poor thing, it just wilted and
died of fright.
"No white blight for you, I see," I say, tempted to put my
sunglasses back on. Serves me right for saying that I want a
career where I can wear my sunglasses on the job. "Did you do all
this yourself?"
"My no. I bought it this way. Do not know one style from
another at all. Leave that sort of thing to the wife. According to the
estate agent, this is called fanciful country, would you believe? The
previous owners wanted to happy up the place by giving it scads of
color and personality. A veritable doll's house, yes?" I can't bring
myself to nod. Can't bring myself to do much of anything because
the maddened colors have seared holes in my eyeballs. Even the
floor is hopping with swirls and squiggles in a faux carpet on
perfectly good hardwood. I'd feel sorry for the dolls. "Everything has
been done with the same touch of whimsy, yes? So they threw in
the furniture and other bits and pieces as part of the deal."
"I see that. But I smell fresh paint."
"Yes, you do indeed. I am redoing the house one room at a
time, starting with my bedroom, yes? Come," he says, pointing a
dimpled finger ahead of us, "the kitchen it is this way, please."
Yipes! Mother Goose's secret breeding ground! The whole
kitchen is a raging rainbow of freehand swirls, florals, checks, polka
dots and stripes, all arguing with each other over who gets to blind
me. The only resting place for my weary eyes is a table cluttered
with papers, books and what could be a laptop buried under the
mess. And I thought my freckles were the ugliest things I have ever
seen.
"Here, have a seat, yes?" He pulls out a chair painted with a
lush garden scene.
I sit on a hard bed of gardenias and lean back against a sky
twittering with larks. This whole place is in perpetual bloom with
color after nauseating color yodeling in the sunshine. Happy,
happy, happy.
Fruk, I feel like I'm inside a lightning bolt.
"It is not so very bad," he chuckles. "It is nice to be
connected to the sun, would you not say so?"
"Icarus had the same idea."
"Yes, yes he did," he says cheerfully and opens a cupboard.

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I half-expect a hoard of sugarplum fairies to come charging


out at me. Noticing a screaming yellow coffee maker on the purple
counter, I say, "I like my coffee black, Mr Faule."
"Al, please. Professor Mabie-Toogod she tells me that you
might be available to help with my research, yes?" he says, clearing
an opening in the papers on the table before me. I wish he hadn't
done that, because now I have to look at the clear glass table
emblazoned with gold diamonds and a shameless spectacle of
other glaring colors and patterns painted by hand.
"Now that my job as her research assistant is winding up, I
could use more work, but I should tell you that I'm leaving for
Europe at the end of October."
"The work I have for you should not take more than six
weeks, yes? And if you are as good as Aurora says you are, you
could have everything in place in four." He starts to fill up the
clearing with a glass mug and saucer. They match the table to a
tee. "You, you have been assisting Aurora with her book on the
sacred and profane use of color in art, have you not?"
"Yes. Normally, when classes are over in the spring, she
travels wherever her research takes her. But this year she stayed
put to wind up her book. I'm glad she did, because the work I did for
her proved to be quite interesting. Until I got the job, it never
occurred to me to wonder whether evil has a favorite color."
"And now you know what color is sacred to Satan?"
I shrug. "Let's just say that I know how a lot of artists
answered the question."
"You studied art history in Paris and Florence, yes?"
I nod. "But my second degree is in forensics. I thought I
wanted a career in forgery detection, then after working in the field
a couple years, I found it too constricting. I'm too restless, or maybe
I just need to push my own envelopes and create my own goal
posts."
"You are planting these posts in Italy while you earn your
PhD, yes?"
I didn't say anything about Italy. Mabie-Toogod must have
told him.
"I'll get a doctorate when I find something I want to obsess
about for two years. I'm returning to Florence because I have a job
offer as a consultant in stolen art recovery."
"And your attempts to get into the police service?"
My face tightens. Is there anything she didn't tell him?
He joins me across the table and puts down his mug without
clearing a place for himself. Amidst the glaring light, his deeply set
eyes remain in shadow. Even when he's smiling, he has a slightly
alarmed look because his thick eyebrows shoot up from the center

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at a sharp angle then stop abruptly, and hang down in scraggly


remnants, like they're broken.
"Uh, the physical part of the procedures training gave me
trouble, so I gave up on the idea." Not exactly true, but he probably
already knows that. Although you'd never guess it from the bored
look on his face. I peer at him through a bouquet of glass flowers.
"So what is your book about?"
"Not a book, no, no." He shakes his head and his extra chin
wobbles in rhythm to his words. He has a lispy, relaxed almost lazy
way of talking that is curiously clipped and formal at the same time,
like he's confident enough in speaking a foreign language to be
relaxed about it, but still sounds stilted because he learned
textbook English in school.
"Nothing as glamorous as that," he goes on. "My no. I am
writing a paper on a series of paintings that I would like to convince
the world are the work of Caravaggio, but I have to dig more
deeper, I'm afraid, if I am going to make my case." He picks up his
mug and pulls off a sheet of paper sticking to the bottom. "My work
it does not amount to anything in the grand scheme of things, but
what I do means everything to me because I am all there is
between the universe and nothingness."
"How can I help you?"
"Aurora says you're a crackerjack investigative researcher,
yes? And, well, frankly I have run up against one dead-end after the
other. I could use an additional right brain and arm to break through
the impasse." He shoves aside some papers and taps his laptop.
"You can start right now if you wish, yes?" He frees his laptop by
sweeping the mess closer to me.
"By sorting out these papers?" I flip through the tangled web.
"You sure this will only take me a month? It looks lik--" My gaze
rivets on a coffee-stained tabloid headline. "BOY KIDNAPPED!" the
red headline screams. I read on, "Nine-year-old lured from safety of
his Banff home by net masher."
Shit, shite, shoot to hell.
The psycho in the mountains and the car. Oh, what's his
name? I thump my forehead. Darien. Why didn't I get his license?
He wasn't driving with reckless abandon, he drove straight at me
with enough precision to come within a hairsbreadth of killing me.
Because I saw the boy with him?! No, no, he tried to get at me on
the rib. Why? I wasn't in his way or--Fruk! He thinks I saw
something I shouldn't have.
Three flashes of light and something falling? The boy wasn't
with the hikers, so what was I supposed to have seen?
"Shocking, how people they don't have time for their kids
anymore, would you not say so?" Al says. "We are content to have

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our kids sitting in front of the TV or computer hour after hour, but
what we are really doing is throwing them to the wolves."
His voice snaps me back into my body. "What?"
"About the boy…"
"Easy to criticize when you don't have kids yourself," I say
peevishly, staring at the smiling face of the boy. I could have
stopped this if I had been paying attention yesterday. I tear the
tabloid from the tangled web. Papers fly everywhere. Unfolding the
paper to see his name, I let out a garbled groan. In the bottom
corner is an inset photo of a man with the caption, "Hiker dies in
climbing accident."
I jump to my feet and like a ball on the end of a string, Al
jerks up off his chair. "I'll start tomorrow, if that's all right."
"You know the boy, yes?" He puts a comforting arm around
my shoulder.
"No," I say, shrugging him off. "Mind if I use your
washroom?"
"By all means, my sweet."
I grab hold of the knob on a door on the far side of the
cupboards.
"Not that one, no, no. It leads to the basement," he says.
"Keep going straight ahead."
As soon as I'm out of his sight, I hit myself over the head
with the rolled up newspaper. A man got murdered and a boy
kidnapped right under my nose, and I have to read the paper to tell
me what I saw?! I give myself another whack, then freeze at the
entrance of the bathroom.
Cherub-like angels with demon smiles look down from the
ceiling and walls ablaze with red. The room is so narrow, the
bathtub is facing end-on-end with the matching cerise toilet. Small
drawers labeled, EYEBALLS, TOE FUNGUS and the like cover the
side wall facing me.
As if I haven't seen enough sickening things the past two
days.
I turn on my heels.

I feel like I'm still spinning when I arrive at Chanlee's modest


two-story between my apartment in Marda Loop and Faule's place
just a stone's throw from downtown. Fruk. The spare key she gave
me doesn't open the lock. What am I doing? The door at the front of
her house isn't the front door because the inside stairs face the
door and will let out all the good energy. That's bad energy. So I run
around to the front door at the back of the house. Shung chi.
Inside the house I stare at the white wall guarding the good
chi from escaping through the doorway. Hot damn but that wall
looks good. Marvelously plain and ordinary. Even at the speed I

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gallop upstairs to Chanlee's bedroom, I'm comforted by the lack of


clutter, unpainted wood, earthen tiles and concrete block walls
throughout the house. I barge into her darkened room without
knocking and zip up the bamboo blinds.
Chanlee and I go back farther than either of us cares to
remember. We've eaten each other's mud pies, swapped
bubblegum, secrets and exam answers, prom dates and keys.
She's wanted to be a cop ever since her brother was stabbed to
death in a crime that remains unsolved. My inspiration came from
Charlie's Angels. She went right for it; I took the tourist route, and I
still haven't arrived.
"Time to get up. I have to talk to you." I nudge her shoulder.
She pulls the covers over her head. "So you didn't get the
job. You'll get another one." I grab the covers and try to yank them
off her, but she holds on and comes with them. "You gone loco?"
"Maybe, but I'm not as crazy as the guy who's trying to kill
me."
She stops resisting suddenly, and I fly back onto my butt.
"Sure it wasn't the fashion police who saw you running
around with your pants tucked into your socks?"
"I was riding my bike. Never mind that, get a load of this." I
pull the newspaper out of my pocket and throw it at her.
"So which one wants to kill you, the kid or the dead guy?"
"Do you mind, this is serious."
"It's also yesterday's news."
"My obituary isn't yesterday's news, but it will be if you don't
quit farting around."
"You didn't push the guy off the mountain because he made
fun of your paintings, now did you?"
"Chanlee!" She holds up her hands in surrender. "I saw him
falling, and it's a sure thing he was pushed, or that psycho Darien
wouldn't have tried to run me down or heave me off the mountain."
"I'm trying to picture this guy. He's a road hog,
child-abducting, murdering, psycho hunk, right?" I stare at her in
disbelief. "You're giving off sparks, kiddo." She tweaks my nose,
then says in a slightly less obnoxious tone, "Ever seen him before?"
"No."
"Sure?"
"I'd remember," I say with enough irritation to get her
smirking again. "He's a little taller than me, and trim in a wussy sort
of way. He dyes his hair a florescent blond, and has this pouty
lower lip--oh, and his lips are tattooed red sirens that advertise his
elephant ears and honker any Roman would be proud of. But it's
his eyes that really grab you. They're disturbing in their dark intent.
And--"
"Uh-huh. Anything but hunky." She yawns.

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"Will you wake up?" I grab her by the shoulders and gently
shake her.
In a blink, the twinkle in her eyes disappears. "Just give me a
chance to get a cola."
"You've sworn off the drink."
"I have. I only had thirty yesterday and none so far today."
She flies off the bed and out the room in two leaps, her long, black
hair flowing in the wind.

After I've rousted her out of the house and gotten her up to
speed with the insanity that's been raining down on me the past
couple of days, we jog towards the dappled path by the river
escarpment. The mountain-cooled and sun-warmed air has a nip
without much bite. A cyclist coming at us on a path that merges into
ours, slows down to let us pass.
"Thanks," Chanlee and I say.
"Enjoy your run," the cyclist says with a wave.
"You know, Chanlee, we'd be living in Utopia if more people
were like her."
"Uh-uh, bet it'd be against the law to have your feet on the
ground when you have sex in a cyclist's paradise."
"As if you'd care as long as they didn't outlaw cola. But
really, I'm being serious. The history of the world is the history of
war. Would there be any wars, do you think, if we were all good to
each other?"
Her reply is drowned out by the sound of a motor gaining on
us from behind. A man with his backside flopping over the sides of
his bike seat, whizzes by us as effortlessly as the motor attached to
the back wheel.
"Ever try walking?" I yell out to him.
He turns around and mouths an obscenity at me.
"Come here and say that, if you can pry your butt off that
thing," I shout.
"Leave him alone, he's not asking you to lug his fat around,"
Chanlee says, nearly pushing me off the path to make way for a
cyclist passing on her left. The woman cyclist, looking fit and phony
in her spandex shorts and brain bucket, snorts out the contents of
her nose as she passes, leaving behind some of the slime on one
of Chanlee's runners.
"Come back here and clean up your mess," Chanlee yells at
her.
The cyclist lifts both hands off the bar and gives Chanlee a
double salute.
"Stop slacking off!" Chanlee snaps at me. "There's a long
light up ahead, and I'm going to--"

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"Oh leave her alone, all she's doing is asking you to lug
around her snot."
Jogging on the spot at an intersection later, Chanlee unzips
a half-empty cola from her waist pack while we wait for the walk
sign. She lives on the stuff yet her skin is silken, her bobbing
ponytail is sleek and shiny and her body is strong and lithe. I'm
super careful not to eat or drink anything that pollutes my body, yet
my skin is forever sprouting freckles, and I've lost every argument
I've ever had with my hair, so I just let my ponytail reconfigure itself
into a squirrel's nest at the back of my head. As for my body, well, if
they ever find a use for cellulite, I could make a fortune by selling
my genetic code. Nothing less than torture and starvation keep the
dimples from hell at bay.
"Rane, get real," she says, peering at me through her plastic
sun visor, "you can't be sure the boy you saw in the car was the
abduction victim. You said yourself that all you saw was his cap."
"His blue, peaked cap. And don't call him a victim like he's
already a statistic. His name is Kenny Hironaka. Nobody seems to
have seen him, except me. Find out what he was wearing."
"I suppose I could, but it would help if I knew the make of car
your psycho was driving."
"I told you, it was a new, gold sedan import."
"That really narrows the field. You're supposed to be a car
whiz," she says after taking a swig.
"You know I've never owned any car less than fifteen years
old. If I don't fix 'em, I don't get to drive 'em. All the new ones look
the same to me."
"Then how do you know it's an import?"
Two suits in a blah car slow down to admire the view. Their
whistles both end in gnarled groans like someone just stole their
jewels.
"Same to you," I shout.
Chanlee elbows me as I'm about to give them a raspberry.
"Ignore 'em, Rane. They just recognized me. They're in vice."
"Figures. Now what were we talking about? Oh yeah, the
psycho's car. I could tell it was an import by the size. New cars may
all look the same, but I'd recognize him anywhere."
"If you're right about even half of this, Rane, we have to find
him before he finds you."
The light changes and we start across, but a granny pulls up
in a Jaguar and blocks the crosswalk. Jogging in place, I signal her
to back up so we don't have to go into the intersection, but she
gives me the finger. Chanlee holds up her badge to the driver's
window and roars, "Move it, or this becomes a police matter!"
Drivers three cars away sit up at attention and Gran's Jag
rolls back before Chanlee gets to the police part. With a glare

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aimed at me, Granny shoots poisonous darts magnified threefold


through her trifocals. I get both her middle fingers tapping on the
steering wheel by giving her a refulgent smile. With the crosswalk
cleared I can see the cars in the other two lanes. Holy hooters!
"Chanlee! That's him, the psycho." I point to the second car
in the third lane.
"The dark blue Lexus?"
I nod.
The light changes.
Gran rolls down her window and whines, "Can I go now?"
"Nothing doing, Gran, we need your car." I reach in and
open the door.
"Hooey," Gran says, in no way sweetly.
"No we don't, all we need is his license number," Chanlee
says.
The cars in the through lanes gas it, with the psycho
cocooned amongst them.
"I didn't get it, did you?" I ask.
Chanlee shakes her head. "Sure that's him? He's got his
head turned from us. Looks like he's talking to someone. Kuan-yin!
He's laughing, and he's got the kid with him. I can just see his cap."
She whips out her badge again. "Outta the car, ma'am." She has to
yell to be heard over the honking in the mounting lineup behind us.
Gran doesn't quibble with Chanlee's badge. She climbs out
and I hop in, while Chanlee runs around to the passenger side.
"Just hold your horses, Gran, we'll be right back."
"Swing over to the far right lane," Chanlee urges.
"What do you think I'm trying to do? We're not in the movies,
you know. I can't make all these cranky drivers vanish by cutting to
the chase. At this time of day any one of them would run down God
to gain an inch."
"Uh-huh, but at this speed we're going to lose him at the next
light."
"The dashboard looks like a cockpit, well, hold on, because
this baby's gonna fly."
I swerve into the middle lane. Low and mean, the Jag
refuses to take no for an answer from anyone reluctant to yield. I
veer and weave up to within an inch of the psycho, who’s driving
like he’s a model citizen.
"It's definitely him. The ugly creep is better looking than I
remember.”
"Uh, I haven't gotten a good look at him. But I think I've seen
him somewhere before. I know!" She smacks her thigh. "He models
underwear."

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"You wouldn't remember his face. Never mind him, look at


the boy, I can't see him from here." The psycho turns our way, does
a double take and--
"Brakes!" Chanlee points ahead.
The Jag stops at a touch. Mine and the car's ahead. The
psycho suddenly hangs a right. I try to swing over to follow, but a
road rager in a pickup has other ideas. He crowds me back into the
middle lane.
Chanlee scrunches her face up against the windshield to see
around the pickup. "Arggg!" She collapses back against the seat
and shakes her head. "Neither of them is acting like they're in the
throes of an abduction. For what it's worth, he's driving a Lexus with
the vanity plate: Nester, in case--"
"What am I going to have to do to convince you he’s a
masher: deliver my corpse to the morgue?"
"Kuan-yin, I'll call this in--"
"No kidding."
"--even though my guess is that if there's any killing around
him, it's from the women stampeding to his door. You're acting like
you've been smitten so hard you don't know which way to turn. Fitz
is thataway." She points in the opposite direction of the psycho.
Catching the sharp look I throw her, she downs more cola instead
of pouring more fuel on the flames.
"Think Fitz'll loan me something to drive until Saturday?" I
pat the dash. Hate to part from you, sweetheart, you're such a
lovely babe, but it's been nice knowing you.
"Far as I know, you're the only one who ever says no in that
relationship."
"Shows you how little you know."

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CHAPTER 2

"No!" I tell Fitz as he walks into my apartment.


"What do you mean no?"
"How many meanings do you think no has?"
"All I did was open the door and step in. Couldn't you at least
give me a hint?" He looks around for somewhere to put his
motorcycle helmet.
"Make yourself comfortable. I'll be right back." I zip into my
bedroom to change out of my tracksuit into something more
impregnable. He's wearing soft black leather that I can feel with my
naked eyes. And I don't have to guess what's underneath. Problem
is, I don't know how to say no to myself when he's wearing it
because on him leather is foreplay. I glance in the mirror. Shit. My
cheeks are rosy. I need some serious backup to keep myself from
climbing all over him. I've got to concentrate on staying out of the
hands of the masher. The psycho, I mean.
Safely encased in a red and white romper, I saunter into the
living room.
"What happened to the little table that used to be here?" he
asks, with his helmet still tucked under his arm. He leans against
the living room wall, turning the drab, barren wall into a work of art,
and he points to an empty spot by the door.
"It's over there." I point to the tubular steel table I've
converted into a weight rack.
He looks disapprovingly around the room devoid of furniture,
but chock-full of exercise equipment. "I remember when this wasn't
a gym."
When I returned from Europe last year, my parents gladly
unloaded their unwanted furniture in my apartment. But their
basement is full again.
He places his helmet on the floor then strips off his jacket,
revealing a white T-shirt. So revealing that my heart skips along
with my eyes from ab to ab.
I defy the world to show me a guy who looks better in black
leather. Thighs to die for. He turns around and bends over to get
something out of his jacket. I'm not looking. No way. Not me. Be still
my shameless heart. If all used car salesmen were even half as
sexy, the world wouldn't stand a hope in hell. We'd all be driving
clunkers.

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He steps towards me. "So what's this about you trying to


date up some schmuck in the mountains? You're supposed to feed
the tourists, not eat them."
I step aside. "I helped him get lost. Never mind, I almost got
a date with death."
"You look alive enough for me."
Uh-oh, I can see my naked body in his eyes. I hop onto my
treadmill, which takes me nowhere fast. "About the car, are you
going to lend me one until Saturday or what?"
"Yeah, I've got something hot in mind for my cutie-patootie,"
he says, closing in on me. He wraps his arms around my waist and
pulls me to him. My feet dangle off the ground. It's great being
around a guy who doesn't make me feel like an Amazon. If only he
didn't have that killer smile. Guess I'll just have to wipe it off his
face.
With my lips. Amongst other things.
Ahh. The phone rings. Grrr.
He reaches around me, picks it up off my workout bench and
puts the phone up to my ear. "It's Chanlee. She's calling from
work," he says, his husky voice dropping another octave.
"There is no Lexus registered to anyone with a Nester
license," she says without a trace of regret.
"You must have read it wrong. Maybe it was Hester or
Pester."
"Uh-uh, it started with an N."
"How about Nest or Near or--"
"Nope. I guess that's it. "
Fitz undoes the large gold buckle on my fake belt.
Undeterred, he tries unbuttoning my fake blouse. The buttons are
real, but they don't open up anything. He gives me a pleading look.
All innocence, I shrug and hop onto the treadmill.
"Aw, come on, Chanlee. We didn't dream up the Lexus or
the kid in it," I say.
"What do you expect me to do? I haven't been assigned to
the Hironaka case."
Fitz leans into me and the phone. "Hey, Chanlee, you might
want to try N-e-v-a-r. I've got a customer with that name." He
cruises around the machine to get at my romper from behind.
"As in Stefan Nevar?! I seriously doubt it. He's a mouthpiece
for moneyed offenders," Chanlee says. "You know, don't you,
Rane, that none of this makes sense? You say that the owner of
the Lexus killed the hiker, but you also said that he must have seen
you watching with your binoculars. He couldn't have been up on the
mountain and harassing you at the same time."
"So unless you pull the trigger yourself, you can't have
anyone killed?"

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"Okay, okay, I'll try Nevar."


I hang up, and Fitz turns off the treadmill. "Got a minute,
Sugar?" he asks.
"Well, Speedy, if that's only how long it's going to take…." I
turn on the treadmill.
"Uh, is there anything left in the bedroom resembling a bed,
or is this as comfortable as it gets around here?"
"Who wants comfortable? I want challenges, excitement."
"In that case, this'll do." He jumps onto the treadmill.
Pumped up, my body jumps at the challenge.

With the night air blowing the scent of him all over me, we
ride tight on his solo-seat bike born the same year as my mother.
One of the bays in his six-car garage opens, and we glide inside. I
hop off the bike and notice in the light that it's sparkling turquoise. I
rub my hand along the fancy chrome on the rear fender.
He takes off his helmet, but I keep mine on. "Why don't you
let me ride this? It's a bit of a puff for you, isn't it?"
He gives me one of his how can you be so stupid looks.
"This is a Hydra-Glide."
"Geezer-Glide, you mean. Come on," I say, hopping back on
the bike. "I'll take the bugs in the mouth and you cover my butt for
once."
"You know the deal, you don't ride any of my bikes till you
learn how to ride."
I look around at his bevy of sleeping beauties, all classic,
stylish, ageless, pampered and cherished. "So which one are you
going to loan me?" My gaze lingers on a baby blue T-Bird.
"This." He reaches under a workbench against the wall, and
picks up a metal box. "The perfect thing for my cutie-patootie."
"Get serious. And stop calling me that."
"Oui, ma choute." Holding the box, he pulls out a handle and
unfolds a riding platform. The silly thing is a scooter. "You're looking
at the next generation of transportation. You can take it anywhere.
Feel how lightweight it is." He holds it out to me. I fold my arms.
"Look, Rane, you only need it to go to and from work for the next
two days. I'll help you get something more your style at the
auction."
"Yeah, with doors, a roof and four wheels. What good is this
piece of junk going to do me if it rains?" I tap on it with my foot.
"You can leave your helmet on," he sings, snapping his
fingers and gyrating his pelvis.
"Jerk." I laugh in spite of myself.
I've got rocks for brains, trying to negotiate with him when
he's dressed to kill. That's what comes of a relationship that started
in a graveyard. We met at a scrap metal yard filled to the sky with

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cars, most of which had died violently. You'd have to go to the ends
of the earth to find anybody who knows more about cars than Fitz.
For me, all that trivia is so much brain dust. But he rides his passion
into successful business ventures that make him so frukin' happy,
he goes around 24-7 with this goofy grin. Even when he frowns, the
corners of his mouth turn up. There's something totally irresistible
about a man who doesn't need you to make him happy.
He steps onto the scooter and carves ever-tightening circles
around me as he says, "Besides, it's not going to rain."
I jump onto his back. Since he's taking me for a ride anyway,
I might as well enjoy it.

Back at my apartment, Chanlee gives me a shout.


"I've got some good news, not so good news and some
shitty news," she says. "We have a match on the license. The
Lexus belongs to a fifty-nine year old woman."
"And the good news?" I put the phone on conference and
unfold my scooter.
"That's it. The not so good news is that Fitz was right.
Because her son is the lawyer, Stefan Nevar, Q.C. You know,
Queen's Council, as in don't mess with this guy. And get this, he
drives a gold Prius."
"I knew it!" I cut a figure eight around my treadmill and cycle.
"But if he's Stefan Nevar, then who or what is Darien?" She
responds with silence. "So instead of a small fish, we have a big
one to fry."
"I'd like to see anyone fry Stefan Nevar without getting
burned."
"I know he’s dangerous."
"Uh-huh."
"So I should just roll over and play dead?!" I zip into the
kitchen and hover in front of the fridge. The scooter doesn't back
up, but it turns on a dime.
"Better that than making an ass of yourself."
"I know what I saw."
"And I don't? Guys like Nevar end up as judges. You'd have
to secure an ironclad case against him before I'd cross swords with
anyone as sharp as him. Even then….He's a real killer in court. My
reach doesn't extend to his power circle, but believe me it's going to
take more than you've got to screw his reputation. No foolin', he
tears witnesses apart, and he only uses words. You can imagine
what he'll do if we--you try to--"
"So it's his reputation over my word."
"What word? You said yourself that you can't identify the kid
because all you saw was his cap. You also said you never saw

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anyone being pushed off the mountain, all you saw was something
falling."
"It wasn't you Nevar was trying to cream with his Prius,
Chanlee."
"Is that what he was trying to do?" She hears me scoffing
and adds, "If you remember correctly, you only thought that after
you read the tabloid."
"You keep this up, and you'll have yourself convinced that I
tried to run him down." I hang up, wheel into the bedroom and
crash into the closet door.
She's right, dammit. I have to get the kind of foolproof
evidence against him that no sleazy lawyer can bend and twist into
a joke that gets thrown out of court. Who am I trying to kid? I'm no
detective, I never made the grade. But where is Kenny Hironaka?
The police haven't found him. And why? Because they're looking
everywhere except the turf claimed by our esteemed psycho,
Stefan Nevar, Q.C. Tomorrow, I'll pay him a visit as someone else.
He was hurtling down the mountain too fast to get my license, and
the Jag wasn't mine, so he has no way of knowing who I am.
Except my first name.
Better make sure I keep it that way.
Okay. Time for some serious exercise. Fitz was almost right
about my bed being gone. All that's left of it is an air mattress that I
move out of the way in the closet to pull out a stack of interlocking
foam mats. I arrange them on the floor, which is empty except for
an alarm clock stashed in the corner out of harm's way. Then I grab
some sheets of brown paper from the top of the dresser in the
closet and hang the sheets at various heights from a line I have
rigged up to circle the room. They're only paper targets, but what
the hell, they don't cry out when I rip them apart.
I warm up, turn out the light and start kicking. The darkness
makes my wits nimble. Round kick, side kick. Contact. The knife
edge of my foot rips through the paper. Am I spooking myself or is
someone, something scratching on my window? I peek out behind
the curtains. Nothing. Just the cars asleep in the parking lot and
someone dropping his garbage in the bin by the alley. I take a deep
breath and pick up on my round kicks. More scratching noises.
Someone's definitely out on my balcony. Nevar must have found
out where I live and has sent his goons after me. I race to the living
room, fill a cookie sheet with water, place it beneath the sliding
door, empty a bag of marbles in front of the cookie sheet, grab a
fifteen pound dumbbell, open the door quickly and step aside.
A thump. Silence. Splash! Marbles scattering and an
unearthly shriek.
With nothing to swing at.

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I flick the light switch and burst out laughing. A very wet,
scared black cat with a white smile and white paws that look like
boots screeches around the room, looking frantically for
somewhere to hide. A silver barrel swings wildly from its plaid
collar.
"It's okay, little guy, you've picked the right home to invade
because I have some cat crunchies left over from Sheeka's visit."
He screeches louder and flies out the door.

In the morning, I fly out of the Doré on my scooter. I


overshoot the turn onto the front sidewalk and careen into my
neighbor's girlfriend about to get into his black SUV. Quick as a
whip, she flicks the door between us, and I bounce back on my
butt. Instead of helping me up or asking if I'm okay, she checks
herself over. Although her face is turned away from me, I can't see
all that much for her to bitch about. Decked out in brown, she runs
a hand up one of her knee-high leather stiletto boots, straightening
her mesh hose as her hand reaches up under her leather miniskirt
scarcely bigger than her four inch high studded belt. Then she
straightens a wrinkle in her ultra snug turtleneck top, shimmering
like morphing glass, and finishes off with a careful check of her
short, blond copper-streaked hair brushed up at the back. A sly
smile of satisfaction amuses her lips, and she steps up into the
SUV.
I shake my head. She's covered from head to foot, yet
there's nothing left for the imagination.
Maybe that's a good thing. Some imaginings are totally
wacked. Like all the colors screaming for my attention as I fold up
the scooter at Faule's. It's not going to be easy working in the
whimsical side of hell. But Al's quiet demeanor gives me hope I can
see this through. God knows I could use the money.
"Here's your newspaper," I say, offering it to him. "I ran off
with it yesterday. Sorry."
He's wearing a loosely-knit brown sweater that makes him
look like an unraveling ball of yarn. An arm pops out from behind
the ball and shoves the paper back at me. "Keep it. My yes. You
will save me the trouble of throwing it out."
A fly buzzes around me, and I swing at it with the paper.
Al looks at me like I'm a monster. "Let me take care of the
fly, yes?" He picks up a fuchsia and orange vase in the foyer table
beside us and studies the fly intently. Then he swoops down on it.
Just like that, the fly's in the vase with his hand clamped over it. I
open the door, and he smiles as he watches the fly soaring to
freedom.
I stare at him in amazement. "The fly saw you coming, so
how did you trap it?"

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"The same way you tried to kill it with the paper. When you
are trying to save a life, you are very careful not to make the wrong
move, yes?"
"Meaning I hesitate?"
He nods. "However, when you are trying to kill something,
you strike without thinking about it, yes? Clearly then, if you want to
save a life, you have to do it without any hesitation at all."
"Interesting," I say, smiling at him in admiration. "My brother
would love to meet you. No kidding. He's nuts about spiders and
insects, and I do mean nuts. He's in Brazil identifying and
cataloguing as many species as he can, because he's afraid they'll
disappear along with the rainforests and be lost to the universe
forever."
He nods in agreement or sympathy, I can't tell which.
Following him into the kitchen, I find that the table has been
cleared of everything except a vase filled with those stinking glass
flowers. I preferred the mess.
"This way, yes?" Al says, exiting the kitchen through the
doorway leading to the bathroom. "I will show you where you will be
working." The bathroom is straight ahead, but he hangs a right,
stops at a doorway at the end of a short hall and motions me to
enter the room before he does. I turn sideways to squeeze by him.
The walls and closet are covered in white primer, and a drop
sheet blankets the floor of the small, narrow room.
"This side of the house is awfully narrow like--"
"The foyer closet is on the other side, yes?" He touches the
inside wall facing the living room. "Then the entrance itself and then
the living room." I nod and give the room a questioning look. "It will
be painted and furnished for you by Monday. Oh yes."
We return to the kitchen, where he pulls out a laptop from a
bottom cupboard. I should ask if I can work outside on the patio.
Now, how can I put this delicately?
"I would like you to start in right with the library research.
You can do that here." He places the laptop on the table, and my
spirits sink. "On the other hand, you can take this with you and go
to the central library, yes? Your choice." He retrieves it from the
table and hands it to me.
"Hmm, you're going to trust me with this computer?"
"My goodness, yes. Why not? Most people have a dishonest
streak, so when an honest person comes along, they stand out,
would you not say so?"
I give him a blank stare. "You don't really believe that?"
"Yes, my sweet, I do. I believe you are honest."
"Thank you, but that's not what I meant. You can't really
believe that most people are dishonest. It only stands to reason that

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if most of us were liars and cheats our society wouldn't work.


Civilization would descend into chaos."
"Society works to the extent that we acknowledge our
dishonesty and build in precautions against it. Oh yes. Would you
not say there are more keys than humans in existence today?"
I start to answer then think better of it. "You're trying to get
me to imagine a world without keys. But keys don't necessarily
mean that people are dishonest, it could just mean that we're
paranoid."
"I daresay that going naked in the world without taking
precautions is hardly sane either, yes? Mind, how far do you think
you would get? No, no. Try imagining a world in which no one lies
or cheats. How many lawyers would there be? How many banks?
How many police?" There's an undercurrent to this conversation
that's making me uneasy. I put down the laptop and fold my arms.
He continues talking but lightens his tone. "I do not know about you,
but I am not sure I would like to live in that world because I agree
with the wag who said the first lie was the first creative act."
"That's awfully cynical."
"Cynical?" He says it like he's amused by the word.
"Goodness no. Far from it. Who would you say is more creative,
Sherlock Holmes or Professor Moriarty?"
Sherlock instantly comes to mind, but no. Nevar paints a
picture of himself as someone who never goes outside the law. The
picture is so well executed, so creative in its slight of hand, that
right minded people near and far admire him for it. "You want me to
say that Moriarty is more creative because he draws his ideas from
outside the line. But that's not really what he does. He takes
advantage of the fact that there are so few people who are as
dishonest as himself."
He looks at me long and hard without blinking, his putty face
scrunched up. Then it explodes into an expansive smile. "There is
nothing like a robust discussion to start the day, yes?" He rubs his
hands together in delight, as though he's getting a kick out of being
beaten at his own game. It's difficult to tell for sure, though,
because his eyes are ever in shadow. "Until tomorrow then?"
"That's it? No instructions?"
"Everything you need to know is inside your laptop, yes?
Toodleoo." And he says it like he means everything.

On my way to the library, I swing over to Nevar's office.


Problem is, when I got up this morning, I didn't know who I wanted
to be today, and I still don't. Mary Muggins? No, sounds like
someone who kisses pictures of her grand kids every time she
opens the fridge. Sylvia Branco? Melissa Burns? No. No.

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I open the heavy wood door to his office and step into a
forest of rich cherry-colored wood with the wild beauty of bubinga.
A receptionist with polished brass hair and a face made of cracked
cement, guards the offices beyond. I whistle under my breath and
march forward, leaving behind the towering columns flanking the
doorway like sentries. Guess I wasn't all that quiet, because like a
cat being called via a high frequency whistle, the receptionist turns
her ears and eyes in my direction but stays where she is. Before I
can say anything, she motions me to retreat to a waiting area on
the far side of the room, nestled discretely amongst palms and
guarded by more fake bubinga columns. All very hush, hush.
The silent vigil is broken by a man and woman joining us
from a doorway behind the reception desk. The woman looks like
one of the columns, while he's the pedestal holding up the rear.
She starts to speak, but the receptionist stops her with the
imperious show of one hand.
"Excuse me, I'll be with you in a moment. I am about to help
this young gentleman," the receptionist says and casts her gaze
past the couple towards me.
"If you're referring to me," I say, joining them at the desk, "I
didn't come here for a sex change." I look at the man dressed in an
ill-fitting grey suit. "Now I ask you, would you wear my coral skort
and jacket?" He gives me a crazy grin.
"I'm terribly sorry," the receptionist says adjusting her
pop-bottle glasses. "But I'm legally blind in my left eye. You'll have
to forgive me. How may I help you…?"
"Hansen. Linda Hansen. Is the sultan in?"
Without cracking anymore of the cement on her face, she
says, "If you mean Mr Nevar, he's in court today." She picks up a
manila envelope, opens it and pulls out a hand addressed blue
envelope.
"In that case, I'd like to make an appointment."
She doesn't check with the computer. All she does is stare at
me, her eyes popping out through her glasses. I catch a glimpse of
the address before she stamps Personal and Confidential on the
blue envelope then hides it from my sight. She keeps watching me.
Guess it's still my turn to speak.
"You see, I was in a car accident."
"Mr Nevar doesn't practice personal injury law."
I look at her as if to say, I know that. "So I have to get
around on this." I hold up my scooter. She stares at me like she can
see my meaning. 20-20. So I say, "He wants to see me more than I
want to see him. Just tell his majesty that I saw the fall in the
mountains. And if he's interested in a guided tour he can page me
at the central library."

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At the library, I don't encounter any problems with the


research on Caravaggio. It's pretty well standard fare that any
undergraduate art history student could find casually browsing the
net. Faule must be testing me, but Caravaggio is not one of my
favorite artists. Too much of his work is crudely disguised
narcissism. Just the same, I can't resist the chance to strut my stuff
by giving Faule more than he's asking for, like the name of the guy
Caravaggio murdered.
After 6:00, I call it a wrap. The only person paged was a
Lydia Cranston. The name keeps echoing in my head. Lydia
Cranston, Linda Hansen, Linda Cranston, Lydia Hansen. On the
way out, I stop at the Security desk guarded by a woman with a
thick neck and an upper lip sore-red from too many waxings.
"I'm Lydia Cranston," I say with more confidence than I feel.
"Did anyone leave a message for me?"
The veins in her neck bulge and her eyebrows fuse together.
I keep back in case she decides to bite off my head. "Oh, yes. The
sultan says he would be pleased to meet with you," she says in a
sweet, dainty voice. I try to look dignified while my resolve does
flip-flops. He's setting me up. "Hope you haven't missed your
meeting," she resumes apologetically. "We did try to page you."
"Everything's fine, thank you."
Liar. He's playing cat and mouse with me, and I don't have
backup. If Chanlee knew what I was up to, she'd act to protect him
from my "mistaken beliefs." Mind you, I'm safer from him on his turf
than I am anywhere else, because he can't afford to have any
suspicion cast in his direction. Just the same, I'd better tell Fitz
where I am.

I jerk back my hand as I'm about to press the buzzer beside


the closed door of Nevar's office, because I hear the door click
open. Where is the surveillance camera? Damned if I can see
anything resembling one. Then a woman's voice says, "Good
evening, Ms Hansen. First door on your right, then second door on
your left." No one is in the reception area, but I can feel gazing eyes
upon me. The ceiling lights have been dimmed, turning the
dark-grained wood a blood red that gives me the willies.
The directions take me to another forest of fake bubinga with
variegated wood sculptures embedded into the spaces on the walls
not occupied by postmodernist paintings. The lighting in this room
proudly proclaims the beauty of the wood, leaving no shadows
deep enough for me to hide in.
I'm the only one in the room, but I'm not alone.
Fruk, how long is it going to take him to look me over?
Impatiently, I unfold my scooter and try practicing sudden turns and
stops without breaking my neck. I scoot up to the second entrance

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to see what's on the other side, but overshoot my mark as I turn. I


reach out to push away from the door. It opens. I grab the edge of
the door, but the scooter spins out from under me, leaving me to
swing as I look into Nevar's startled eyes.
"Well, well, if it isn't Bambi," he says, recovering so quickly
that his surprise turns to sneering laughter before he's finished
speaking. Leaving me suspended, he strides to his desk, which
doesn't have a shred of paper on it. His navy suit makes him look
more like a kook surfboard hustler than someone who rides a gun.
I take my time getting back to the scooter, spinning its
wheels like crazy against the front leg of his desk.
"What did you see?" he asks like he actually expects me to
cough up my soul.
I sit down in a carved barrel chair impossible to get
comfortable in. A beautiful torture chamber. Instead of answering
him on command, I give myself some time to sense him out by
looking around the room--nice and slow with a jaundiced
eye--before settling my gaze on him. Strange, but now that he's in
the room, I feel all alone. "You've done this place up like a
confessional," I remark, "but big and over-the-top to fit the crime, I
suppose?"
He leans back in his lived-in leather chair. "Big enough for
you?"
I shrug. "The only ones I've been in have been empty,
except for me and a multitude of demons."
"What do you have for me?" He picks up a letter opener that
looks enough like a dagger to make my skin prick. He flips the
opener end over end over end on the desk.
"I saw an idiot with shit for brains try to run me off the road."
He draws in his pouty lower lip then says, "I was in a hurry to
get back to Calgary."
"You say Calgary like you're a tourist. You're an import like
your car?"
"I was born east of Vulcan. But I don't have the time or
inclination to chat or play guessing games with you." He talks like
every word he utters is worth a $100 a pop. Except that the sum
total of everything he has to say is contained in his pauses. "What
do you have--"
"Thanks for granting me the right to speak as long as I agree
with everything you say. But I'm not here to play your games."
"What do you have, and how much do you want for it?"
My mouth drops open, not like a confused mouse, but close.
"You think I'm here to extort money out of you?!"
"If I thought you were trying to do that, we wouldn't be having
this discussion. The police aren't the only ones who pay for
information. What do you have?" My feet tap out my exasperation.

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His comes out in an exaggerated sigh. But he's just given me a


window of opportunity I'd be a thimble-wit not to smash through.
"Actually, I'm here about the boy."
He starts, rising out of his chair. Then he looks at his desk
like he wishes he had some paper to shuffle. Such an obvious
display of guilt on his part?! It has to be put on for my benefit. He
needn't bother. I already think he's a fork-tongued frukhead.
"How did y--?" He stops himself and sinks into his chair.
"Keep your money, I want information," I say quickly, before
his face hardens into a mask again.
"You're talking trade?" It's hard to tell from his blanked out
face and flat tone whether he's asking a question or agreeing. I
cross my fingers under the desk. "So shoot."
I shake my head because this is a duel where the one who
shoots first loses. That's what happens when two cats play with no
mouse. "I'll bite if you come across with the goods."
"No info, no deal."
I stand up. "You know I have information you want, but what
have you got?"
"You understand that I won't give you anything that will
jeopardize the investigation?" I nod. "What would you like to know?"
Everything. Like what have you done to him and where are
you hiding him?
"What was Kenny wearing the day he disappeared?"
"Brown hiking boots, black cargo pants, yellow fleece top
with a V-neck, long sleeves and a black number five on the front.
He also had his navy and grey hooded jacket with him, however, he
might have stuffed it in his matching backpack."
"No cap?" I sit down.
"Not that we know of." He looks at me like I'm the one
holding out on him. "I'll get confirmation." I nod. He leans back and
strokes the dagger. "Even when you agree with me, you never lose
that disapproving look." He stands up abruptly with his shoulders
square and walks around the desk like he enjoys being tall. I shift
my feet ready to strike at him. He takes hold of my right wrist and
clamps the opener into my palm. "To keep you and your demons
company while I'm gone. I'll only be a few minutes." And he
disappears.
I eye the exits.
No one is stopping me from leaving, but I can't shake the
feeling that I'm trapped. The hair on my arms stands straight up.
Suddenly, the door opens again and he walks in saying, "Kenny
may have been wearing a cap."
"What color?" To disguise my apprehension, I pretend to be
preoccupied with something in my bag.

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"His blue one is missing. But no one has reported seeing him
wearing it that day." He sits down on the edge of the desk, so close
to me his thigh brushes mine. I don't move, but everything in me
recoils. "How did you know about the cap?"
"Let me put it in a way you can understand: You want
anything from me, you have to give me something in return."
"We both know what I've given you. What have you given
me?"
I recap what I saw happen on Mt. Rundle.
"Are you sure it was a camera?" he asks.
"This sure." I reach into my bag for a sketch I did of the
camera and hold it up to him with the drawing facing me. He tries to
take it, but I refuse to release it. "Not so fast. What do I get in
return?"
"What are you after?"
"A transcript of Kenny's last email to his abductor."
He laughs derisively.
"Okay. Then who are you working for?"
"I never said I was working for anyone."
"You're deliberately being obtuse."
"And your description of the two men left on the mountain
after the fall wasn't deliberately vague?"
"I told you, the taller guy in the green jacket was wearing a
hat and had the camera to his face; and the guy he was shooting
had his back to me."
"You'll have to come up with something better than that. And
this." He snatches the drawing from my hand.
"I will."
"So you think you can do what the police and others can't."
He folds his arms, tucking the sketch behind him.
"The girl who was kidnapped last year wasn't found by the
police or some hotshot lawyer, she was found by a woman out
walking her dog."
"Describe yourself."
I look down at my clothes, but he takes my chin in his hand
and lifts my face. "No cheating and no stalling." I push his hand
away instead of smacking him.
"Uh, white female, six feet, medium build,
twenty-something," I pause to gulp, "brown hair and eyes."
Since I totally underwhelmed him, I say, "Now you describe
the woman you accosted in the mountains."
"I never accosted anyone--" I push his face away from me.
"--Your description will suffice."
"Hah, I knew you couldn't do it."

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"Tan hiking sandals, blue jeans, no belt, collarless white top


with large sunflowers, gold tone watch worn on the right wrist, gold
loop earrings, freckles, thirty--"
"Thirty? You think I look thirty?!"
"How about twenty-nine and thirteen months?"
This is one busy beaver who deserves to be damned to hell.
My lips are so tight they feel like they'll crack if I speak, but I
say with my jaw cracking, "So even when you guess you cheat."
"Who's guessing?"
"Neither of us, obviously." I gather up my bag and computer.
"Surely you want to hear my description of your painting?"
"Go to hell." I head for the door.
"Bambi?" I keep going. "You're not going to get far without
your vacuum cleaner."
Collecting my scooter, I look him in the eyes and say, "Go
ahead and laugh." He smiles at me with repulsive sweetness. "But
if you think my Dueling Peaks was the best part, wait till you get a
load of my Three Men on the Mountain. With any luck, when you
see them you'll die laughing."

Downstairs in the lobby my thoughts are overtaken by the


scent of him. I turn around, but he's not there. A security guard
distracts me by hailing me over to his desk. "Need you to sign out,
ma'am."
He shoves a clipboard at me and goes back to watching TV.
"Makes you sick what you see on television these days." He shakes
his head slowly, his shark blue uniform deepening the sadness in
his eyes. "Children not even safe in their own homes. Poor fella."
"Are they talking about the kidnapping?" I ask, straining to
see the TV on the other side of the transaction counter.
He nods then resumes shaking his head in dismay.
I race around to the other side of the desk, and he turns up
the volume.
Kenny's photo flashes up on the screen. His brown eyes
sparkle with playful curiosity and his smile would light up any heart.
Or break it. The newscaster gives a description of what Kenny was
wearing the last time he was seen. Nevar's description, word for
word. Oh hell! He's been jerking my chain.

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CHAPTER 3

Beneath that polished, diamond-hard surface is pure turd. The rat


gave me zip all. Intentionally. But unintentionally, Nevar told me
that the camera is important, and because he never asked for my
number I know he's been violating my privacy. What did I give him
without meaning to? Maybe I shouldn't have told him about the
Three Men on the Mountain. But that's insurance, to keep him
believing I'm worth more alive than dead. What am I worrying
about? He'll never find the paintings. If I know him--and I'd better if
I'm going to survive--he'll search everywhere except where I've
hidden them.
In one way, it was a good thing my beater conked out,
because doing the sketches has seared the images in my mind. I
could pick out any one of those guys in a crowd. Or police lineup.
One thing's certain: Nevar is never going to give me anything
that doesn't end up as a date on my tombstone. Anything I want
from him I'll have to take. Like right now at his place while he's not
there. The blue envelope on his receptionist's desk was addressed
to him at 400 something Belisaire Place in Belavista.
Belavista is a hidden jewel of architect designed houses
nestled amongst old growth trees on the east side of the
escarpment. There's a noticeable lack of flash, because the people
who live there don't like to attract attention to their wealth. Instead
of sidewalks, they prefer chamomile growing between the cracks in
the asphalt, and manicured flora as territorial markers instead of
fences. Even the ubiquitous, lit security system signs are tucked
discretely in flower beds. It's uphill all the way, but my little put-put
chugs along undeterred. I pretty much get the whole road to myself
because they keep unwanted cars and the riffraff in them from
contaminating their paranoia by requiring a permit to park on the
street.
When I reach the four hundred block, I tuck the scooter and
computer case under an unlimbed blue spruce with the best view of
the curved street. This tree and the cement box house it protects
might be his, but there are no lights on, so I run from one lit house
to the next doing some serious window peeping. It would help if I
knew what I was looking for. The woman scolding the two kids in
the Tudor house could be his wife and kids for all I know. Hell, what
am I doing besides freezing my buns off out here? This morning,

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clouds spanned an arch in the sky, opening the way for the dry,
warm chinook winds the mountains breathe on us. That was this
morning. Now the temperature is falling precipitously.
That's it.
The stakeout can wait until tomorrow. In the light of day I
won't arouse much suspicion by knocking on doors, pretending to
be looking for my lost cat. I retrieve my things from under the tree
and step onto the curb.
Headlight beams light the horizon downhill. Then they
disappear. Probably into a garage. Suddenly, a car shrouded in
darkness appears around the curve. I dive back into the tree. Ouch!
A thousand sharp needles stab at me. The car rolls up to within ten
feet of me. I crouch back. The driver cuts the motor, gets out and
walks towards me. Because there's no sidewalk, he comes close
enough for me to trip him. Then again, he's close enough to
strangle me. Who the hell is it? The drooping branches hiding me
shield his face. He steals across the street to avoid being seen
under the street lamp, but I catch a glimpse of him before he ducks
behind a shrub. The nimble hulk from the mountain! I knew it!
Nevar, you monster, have you already killed Kenny?
What's going on? There aren't any lights on in the house
behind the shrub. I leap out from the spruce and just as quickly leap
back. Ow! Someone is approaching on foot. A woman with a
towering beehive pauses to let her dog tinkle his golden drops on
the lamppost. At least I think it's a dog. It looks more like a woolly
mammoth.
"Come on, Bobby, be a good boy and wee-wee for Mommy,"
the woman pleads. "Mommy's got a treat for you when you're done.
Please, baby, it's going to snow."
Bobby moseys along from fallen leaf to leaf, covering about
a foot a minute with his nose. He doesn't seem to know what a
straight line is, so it's an even bet whether he'll pick up my scent.
His floppy ears perk up like I'm his promised treat, and he starts to
growl.
Uh-oh.
She peers in my direction. "Silly boy, that's just a car. Who
could be visiting that fat cow Mavis at this hour, I wonder?" She
follows his lead straight for me. "Humph! No permit." Suddenly, she
reins him in. "Oh my hair! It's starting to snow, Bobby-poo." Big, fat
lazy flakes, shimmering in the light, float down without a care in the
world because there's no wind to swirl them into a frenzy. She turns
back, but Bobby squats down because he's decided it's time to do
his business.
Fine and dandy for him because he's got a heavy coat on.
I'm the one freezing.

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While I wait, I rummage through my bag for something to


use as a weapon. My exercise band is the best I can come up with.
No, my fingers fumble onto something hard and sharp. Nevar's
letter opener?! He planted it on me. Why? No time to argue with
myself, Bobby and Lady Beehive have made themselves scarce.
Before dashing across the street, I check out the car. It's a
Malibu with a Baby On Board sign in the back window. Who's he
trying to kid? With his mug that sign is as good as advertising the
car is stolen.
The Hiker turned into the house with the massive stone
gable. So why aren't there any lights on? I tread carefully around to
the terrace at the back and come upon a French door ajar. I'd have
to be a raving lunatic to go inside. Yet Kenny deserves better than
my cowardice. With the letter opener tucked in at my waist, I slip
inside the house. Hell, it's darker in here than outside. I let out my
breath slowly, tiptoe forward and crash! I'm flat on my face. Some
idiot parked his shoes by the door.
No point in pussyfooting around, they know I'm here. Taking
a deep breath, I can feel my lungs filling with evil.
Time to leave.
As I'm about to lift myself up, the sounds of footsteps come
from my right--soft, careful and swift. All my senses come alert to
the scent of him. Nevar. No time to even think about hesitating. I
grab his calf and yank hard, throwing him off balance. Then I spring
up, shift my weight to my back leg and sweep my kicking leg
around to plow into him, quickly following through by driving my
cocked foot into his stomach. His black outline buckles as he
expels the air I've knocked out of him. Much better than paper. I
slam my heel into the back of his head, and he crashes to the floor.
My ears perk up at the sound of a grunt followed by a moan
on the other side of the room. What room? Is this the kitchen? A
shadow rips past me and merges with the door. Following, I see the
Hiker disappearing around the side of the house. No point in
chasing him, I can't outrun his Chev.
I go back inside, roll Nevar over and grab him by the shirt. Or
is it a shirt? By the piping and large buttons, I'd say it's a pajama
top.
"Where do you have Kenny? Huh, Nevar?" I shake him to no
avail. Then I slap his face. No deal. He's out to lunch, twittering with
the angels. Not bloody likely. He's cross-examining God to get a
better deal for Satan. "Want more time to score some really big
points with your boss? Huh, Champ?" I let go of his pj's and his
ignominious head cracks against the stone floor.
The way the Hiker hightailed it out of here, I'd say that he
didn't get what he came for: Kenny. I pull out my dagger. My fingers

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stick to the metal. Hell, Nevar's nose must be bleeding. I can't stand
the feel of any part of him on me.
I grope my way past an island and bump into a table. Aha,
I'm in the kitchen. I step around the table and crash! I'm on the floor
again. Only this time, I'm lying crosswise on someone's chest, and
the left side of my face is grazing the sharp, wet blade of a knife. I
spring up in horror before my blood completely curdles. Then I run
to the fridge and force it open with my foot to shine some light on
whose blood I'm sharing. Bloody hell. It's the short hiker. With his
throat slit.
His unseeing eyes stare frantically at my feet as I look
through his jacket pocket for I.D. Nevar moans and stirs. The light!
He'll see me. I kick the fridge shut. He groans as he struggles to get
up.
I slip by him to the door.
Outside, I shiver, not from the cold, but from the evil in such
a beautiful, sparkling night filled with millions of pristine jewels
descending from the heavens onto the grass and flowers. I scoop
up the downy flakes and the blood from my hands sullies the
sparkle then extinguishes it.
It doesn't feel good to be home. The letter opener flew out of
my hand when I fell over the hiker. I should have kicked Nevar back
to La-la Land then scoured the place for Kenny. My arms are sore
from lugging the scooter, and I'm hurting all over from kicking
myself all the way here. I'm safe, and Kenny isn't because I didn't
hesitate to save my own butt. I'm about as useful as a tornado in a
teacup.
I head straight for the shower, climb out after fifteen minutes
then climb in again. What the hell, no amount of scrubbing can
wash away the knowledge that I've been touched by his filth.
Stepping out of the shower, I hear a shuffling noise coming from the
balcony. I throw on a robe and dart to my bedroom window.
Nothing. Like hell. Nevar's out there, I know he is. I can feel the air
thickening with evil. No fruking traps for him this time. I'm going to
kick the maggot off my balcony.
Ready to strike with my whole body, I slide open the door
and leap out.
The only thing moving is the snow. I thrust out my arm and
the flakes, curled up like boats, sail down onto my fist. Here I am,
trying to punch out snowflakes. What's that moving by the garbage
bin? I peer through the snow glowing amber as it falls undisturbed
under the alley lamp by the bin.
Rustling sounds come from my kitchen. Creeping inside, I
see a shadow move by the counter on the other side of the stove. I
leap up to fell him with a low flying front kick. I land on my feet

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without making contact with anything but the air. I flick on the lights,
and the black cat smiles at me from the countertop.
"You again?" He gives me a plaintive meow and sticks his
rump in my face. "That one doesn't work with me, pal." I turn him
around, and he butts his head against me. "I'm too bummed out to
argue with you. But tomorrow you're out of here. Got that?" He
smiles at me, but then he's always smiling. Dumb cat. "And what
did you do with that ugly collar you were wearing? How am I
supposed to get you back home without it? Huh? Now I don't
suppose it's a coincidence that you're parked next to the fridge?" I
open it. "Hmm, nothing in here for you, little guy." I grab a jar of
pickles for myself. "How about some tuna?"
I munch on a pickle then put it down so I can open the can of
tuna. He whops the pickle off the counter and makes off with it.
Good thing all my body parts are attached. And guess what,
Nevar? They're going to stay that way.

"Late night, yes?" Faule asks, looking down at my feet when


I arrive at work in the morning. Damn. I managed to put on two
black socks this morning all right: one plain, the other striped. He
places a comforting arm around my shoulders. "Well, my sweet,
why not come back on Monday when your office is done, yes?"
"Thanks just the same, Al, but work would be a welcome
distraction. Real work, not another art history 101 quiz."
The papers, TV and radio were still focusing on the
kidnapping this morning, but not a word about a murder at the
home of one of Calgary's finest. I'm going to have to get Chanlee in
on this. But will she tell me if there's a cover-up? Who can I trust?
Every question I ask takes another minute off Kenny's life. If he still
has a life.
"That's the fighting spirit. My yes. I have got more real work
for you than you can shake a stick at." He gently pushes me in the
direction of the kitchen.
I put the laptop across from his on the table. Family photos
now sit in the shade of the glass flowers.
"Your family?"
He nods. "I had them in the room that's being made over into
your office, poor things."
I pick up the photo closest to me. A boy and girl, both under
ten, I'd say, play with a puppy while Al and his young, slim wife
watch with loving eyes. "You have a beautiful family, Al. They even
have your dimples."
All the dimples on his face glow pink with pride.
"Will they be joining you from Eastern Europe?" He looks at
me with a blend of curiosity and surprise. "Sorry, I don't mean to be
personal. It's just that I detect a slight accent. Hungarian, perhaps?"

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"I am a mongrel, wouldn't you know," he says cheerfully.


"Aren't we all?"
"I think maybe that accent you are detecting is my lisp, yes?
But my family is in Montreal. They will be joining me as soon as
Alma is finishing the sell of the house and tidies things up at that
end." Looking pleased with the thought, he rubs his hands together.
"Mind if I make a few calls, first? A cat showed up at my door
last night, and according to the apartment super it doesn't belong to
anyone in Doré Parc. I want to check with the lost and found
agencies."
"A feral cat, maybe, yes?"
"Not a chance. Mr McPickles is completely house trained. No
one has to tell him where the fridge is."
Several calls later, I'm no further ahead. What am I
supposed to do with a cat no one wants?
"Come sit here," Al says, patting the garden of posies on the
seat of the chair next to him. "Right here. Beautiful. Since you have
passed your quiz with colors flying, I am going to show you what
my work is truly about, yes?"
I do as he says and become completely absorbed by the
colorful yet foreboding painting on his computer.
"A powerful rendering of the soul ruthlessly dominating the
flesh, would you not say so?"
"Nemesis being raped by Zeus?" I ask, more to myself than
him.
"No, no, it's The Rape of Leda by the Swan," he explains.
"I was thinking of Apollodorus…."
"I do not care to know the names of the gods or which one
did what. Mythology is for pie and other things in the sky. Oh yes. It
is all Greek to me, really. But by golly, I know what I find beautiful.
And it is beautiful the way the artist goes beyond the erotic to the
mystical, would you not say so?"
It's not beautiful, it's disturbing in its baroque realism. But
rather than contradict him, I say, "I've never seen this painting
before."
"That is the beauty of it. My yes. No one in the art world has.
So you can imagine my excitement at discovering it. And there are
three more where this came from." I stare at him, eager for more. "I
got onto this obscure collector--more about how later, yes? Until
recently he was trapped behind the Iron Curtain with his beauties."
My face can't contain my surprise. Or envy. "Just one
painting like this would be a find of a lifetime. Have you seen the
originals?"
"Seeing them is what has me got worked up into such a
state that I have left my family behind to be here. Oh yes."

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"What could Calgary possibly have to further your


research?"
"Mabie-Toogod, wouldn't you know. She has made the study
of Caravaggio and other Baroque artists the work of her life."
"You haven't told her about any of this, obviously, or she'd
be in a feeding frenzy."
"You are a clever one. So far I have merely hinted at my
fabulous good luck because I need to do more work on the
provenance. That is where you come in, my sweet. Until we can
make a credible case, you are not to tell anyone about this. You
have to, simply have to keep your lips sealed, yes?"
I zip my lips with one sweep of my hand. He did say we?
What a coup being asked to work on a project of this magnitude.
My spirits soar past flattery. This could be the making of me. But
what kind of contribution can I make in only four to six weeks?
"Here is coming the second one," he says, bringing me back
to earth. Another picture appears on the screen. "Equally as
beautiful, would you not say so?"
A beautiful young charioteer and woman try furiously to
out-race an arrow slung at them by a man in the chariot chasing
them. "Hippodamia and her suitor being pursued by her father?" I
ask.
"Yes, oh yes. But look, the most important person in the
painting cannot be seen." I lean into the screen for ghostly shadows
or images in the sky. "No. Look at the wheel of her father's chariot.
See? It is coming off. The suitor is going to die, of course, but so is
her father. All as planned by the mastermind behind the scene,
Pelops, who wins the day and her hand. Beautifully." He smiles
serenely at the work.
The skilled brush of the painter gives the scene an
in-your-face urgency, but this is not the stuff tragedy is made of.
The implied cruelty undercuts the impending doom of the lovers.
This is the stuff pornography is made of.
Reading my face correctly, he says, "There is nothing
sadistic about the man inflicting the arrow. My no. Because, as you
well can see, he is not enjoying himself. Not a whit."
"Maybe not, but the artist sure is. It's not the subject that
makes this painting vulgar, Al, it's the artist's lack of understanding
of the myth of Hippodamia."
"You find it dangerous, yes?" Before I can answer, he adds,
"All great art is dangerous because it instructs us about things we
try to avoid and deny. It changes our perception of ourselves by
reacquainting us with our natural state of danger."
"Danger and suffering are natural, but love and wisdom are
contrivances, I suppose?"

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"My no, they are coping strategies. Like most honest people,
you hide the truth from yourself that we are predatory animals. You
do not think twice about the elaborate precautions you have to take
everyday to avoid falling prey to harm from others. At the same
time, you do not think twice about wearing a uniform that makes
you a predator in the service of good. There is no higher honesty
anywhere than a soul who fully admits being a predator.
"All that from just one arrow." Sharp, well-aimed and deadly,
but not in the least natural. I sigh and shake my head.
"Enough, I think, of playing the devil's advocate, yes?" He
blanks out the screen then rubs his hands.
"What makes you think these paintings are by Caravaggio?
From what I've seen, I'd say they're not because th--"
"Did I say they were by Caravaggio? No, no. Sorry for your
confusion. These two are not Caravaggio's beauties. My goodness
no. Anyone could see that they are not. No. We are pretty sure they
are done by one of his many copiers, though. Renieri or
Grammatica most likely perhaps. It is the next one that is the real
doozie. If it is not by Caravaggio, I will croak. Oh yes." He rubs his
hands slowly. "Let us save it for Monday. Down now to business,
yes?"
After work, Al gives me a lift to Chanlee's.
"Here you are, my sweet," he says as I step out of the car
into slush. He holds out money to me. I stare at it. "Your wages,
this is your wages. We agreed I would pay you every Friday, yes?"
"Right. It is Friday," I say, still hesitating to take the money.
"Why in cash?"
"Convenience, nothing more. No, no. But if you prefer to pay
taxes on it…."
"It's not that, Al. I'd like to be able to use this job on my
resume."
"No problem at all," he says with all his dimples going into
high gear. "But maybe you take this now, yes? I will make out a
check for you next week."
"Okay, sure."
"You are doing fine, just fine. My yes. Enjoy your weekend,
Rane. Cheery-bye"
With the money clutched in my hand, I wave and go inside
the empty house. Chanlee's already left for her last shift of the
week. I head straight for the TV, but it's strangely silent about the
murder last night. Sprawled out on the sofa, I tune into an award
show that blanks me out with its endless stream of winners taking
turns reciting the phone book.
I drift off into darkness.
A prick of light captures my attention. As I move towards it,
the light expands into a sunshiny world of carousel colors that make

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my thoughts spin. I grab at the riotous colors to anchor me, but they
dance and glow without letting me touch them. How could that be?
There's something inside them that's consuming me. I have to get
out. Struggling entangles me. I can't--
"Rane! Rane!" the colors scream.
Then they attack full force.
Chanlee shakes me awake.
"Thanks for waking me, Chanlee. I was being devoured by
predatory colors." I try to shake the fog out of my head. "Never
mind that. I was involved in a murder last night, and--" I swing my
legs onto the floor and sit up so she can sit on the sofa beside me.
"What murder?" She stands over me, frozen in place.
As I explain what happened at Nevar's, her expression
changes from alarm to skepticism.
"There's been no homicide reported involving anyone
remotely connected with Nevar," she says, sounding officious and
looking it in her uniform.
"Why do you think that is?"
"You're still dreaming if you honestly believe everyone is
conspiring against you to cover up his tracks."
I hold my head in my hands. "I have to be dreaming. I don't
know how else I got into the world of an Investigation of a Citizen
Above Suspicion."
"Rane, I can't fight your demons for you."
"Who's asking you to? I'm asking you to believe me. We've
known each other a long time, and I'm only finding out now that you
think I'm a frukin' liar."
"Don't make this a test of our friendship."
"What friendship? How could you be my friend when you
don't believe in me?"
"I believe what I know to be true. So far you haven't given
me a reason to believe you."
"Oh yes I have." I get up and head towards the front door.
It's about time someone let out all this good chi. It's suffocating me.
"I gave you my word."
"Don't be such a hothead and come back here." She follows
me. "So far the only one you've implicated with your word is
yourself. You just confessed to pulling a B & E. According to your
word, Nevar didn't push anyone off any mountain, and he didn't slit
anybody's throat. You also said he was wearing pajamas in the
dark. That doesn't give you a hint he was asleep in his house when
you and the others invaded it? You keep giving me evidence that
he's not implicated in anything more than being a victim of your
imagination. The only evidence I have that something's amiss is
that you're so strung out you're scared silly of colors."

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Dammit, she's making more sense than I am. First I scream


that the colors are going to get me, now I'm painting the whole
world black and white. I drop my head back against the door, and
she gives me the time and space to play everything back in my
head to hear more than the words.
I look at her, feeling like a fool. "You're telling me you won't
help me if I don't stop holding out on you."
She points at me and nods. "You've got it. You're demanding
that I believe in you, but what are you prepared to give me in
return? Sure as shootin' not your trust. All I've got from you so far is
sanitized garbage. Make up your mind which way you want to go
with this then go for it full force. I've never known you to go wrong
when you do that."
I push myself off the door and hug her. Instead of asking
what the world would be like without liars and cheats, Faule should
ask what it would be like without friends. The world can exist with
dishonesty, but could it exist for any of us without friendship?
"I got the license number of the Hiker's Malibu, and I did a
painting of the three hikers, and--"
She disarms and starts undoing her shirt. "Let's save the
juicy bits for when we're having eats. First, I'm having a shower."
"Food!" I smack my forehead. "I forgot about Mr McPickles."
"That's what you're calling Fitz now?"
"No. I have a cat." I smack my forehead again. "I don't have
a cat. One showed up at my back door."
"You don't have a back door."
"Tell Mr McPickles that. Provided he hasn't clawed and
gnawed his way into the fridge, we can eat at my place."

Chanlee follows me into my apartment, but she's the first to


shriek. The place looks like a Jackson Pollack painting after a fire
sale. My paints have been sprayed everywhere, even my exercise
equipment is in pieces on the floor. The fiends didn't miss a thing.
Just finding and sorting out all the bolts and screws is going to take
me forever. And all I did to deserve this was go to the mountains to
recharge my soul.
"Mr McPickles?!" No sign of him. I run into the bedroom even
though my heart is cringing because I might want to throw up at
what I find. Thankfully he's not amongst my shredded, sliced and
diced foam mats, clothes, mattress and light fixture strewn about
the floor. I dash back to the living room. Chanlee's in the galley
kitchen, shaking her head and looking down at the floor.

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CHAPTER 4

The total content of the fridge and cupboards is smeared


everywhere in a stinking mess.
Her voice strained, Chanlee says, "They were looking for
something, obviously, but--"
"My painting of the men on the mountain. But all the sick fruk
got was my decoy. I knew he was going to come steal it, so
I--McPickles!"
She points quizzically to two mutilated pickles impaled on a
knife sticking out of strawberry jam and mayonnaise sludge.
"No!" I run to the balcony door. "Can't you hear him? He's
scratching to get in." I open the door and he dashes in, stops, does
a ballerina stretch then looks around and yawns. As I close the
door, I catch a glimpse of a man at the garbage bin. I'll bet it's the
same thug I saw last night. I step onto the balcony, but he
disappears into the ally. Turning back inside, I see Mr McPickles
sniffing his way to the kitchen. He takes a second to survey the
scene, sees that the place has turned into one big foodfest and
dives in. I grab for him. He slinks out of my grasp and slides into the
sludge. "Head him off on the other side, Chanlee!"
She jumps into place ahead of him and bends down to
swoop him up.
"Don't put your face so close to him!"
He growls and swipes at her, but she anticipates his fear
response and jumps aside out of the reach of his claws. I grab him
from behind. He protests halfheartedly, then contents himself with
licking the goodies he's deposited on my blouse.
"It's not safe for him here," I say, looking with increasing
irritation at the mess. Mr McPickles is the only glimmer of decency
in the whole mess. They put him outside instead of leaving him in
pieces on the floor. I know why I would have left him unharmed, but
I have to wonder why thugs like that would have bothered.
"Or for you."
Rage washes over me. Nevar's disassembling my life with a
vengeance.
"You and Mr McPickles can stay at my place. He's so cute."
She pets him, and he stretches out his neck for more. Then she
tickles his stomach and all hell breaks loose. I have to lock his
shoulders to keep him from taking her arm off.

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"On second thoughts, take him to the vet," she says, keeping
a respectful distance.
"Look! He's got sutures on his stomach. He'd be better off
with my parents."
"If Sheeka doesn't eat him for lunch."
"Come on, we'll clean up this mess after we drop him off."
"Don't even think about touching anything. This is a crime
scene."
"I don't want the police involved in this."
"Wrong tense, kiddo."
"Don't let him keep playing the police for chumps. While
you're busy sorting through this garbage, he's getting away with
murder."
"Look around you, Rane. This is rage spewing out of a sick
mind. It's totally misdirected, but it's aimed right at you."
"No, you look. This is a calculated mess if ever I've seen
one." She shakes her head in disbelief then follows me into the
living room. "This is an attempt to scatter his risk by putting us off
his scent. Try seeing past the obvious. He's reduced everything to
pieces without making a commotion. You have to be a pro to pull
off something like this with everything in it's place according to a
specific intent."
"What intent?"
"He's after the same evidence as you. Only difference is he's
trying to destroy it. Even in this god-awful mess I can see that
there's something crucial missing: my painting of the hikers. But he
only got the fake I did up for just this purpose. Well, not quite this
purpose. All the same, he--"
"You keep saying he. What makes you so certain it's
Nevar?"
"I've only told two people about the painting of the hikers:
You and him. And I know you didn't do this. You can search every
inch of this place, but you won't find the real painting."
We both sigh, but mine comes out sounding more like a
growl. Mr McPickles' throat rumbles as a warning that he's going to
tattoo my face with his claws if I don't put him down.
"Get a load of the phone," I say.
The answering machine and the cordless handset are
hidden yet obviously intact under the rubble that was once my
exercise equipment. The machine is still plugged in with the red
light flashing. "Obvious, but clever. With the phone conked out,
someone trying to call me would get concerned or suspicious. With
the phone still connected, Nevar gets to keep tabs on me and
everything seems all right. Yeah, as right as anything can be in
hell."

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"There's someone malingering around your Dumpster,"


Chanlee says from the balcony door.
"I know," I say from somewhere far away.
The display says there are seven old messages and one
new one. "You're ignoring my calls at your own peril, Bambi,"
Nevar's voice says. "It would be in your best interest to talk with
me."
"He calls you Bambi?!" Chanlee says, trying not to laugh.
"You're sicker than he is if it amuses you that your friend is
the prey of a psycho."
"Personally, I think you're reading both him and the book
wrong," she says like she can see through me. But what is she
really seeing besides her own need to be right?
I glare at her but can't see past the teasing look making her
eyes sparkle. "Don't you start with me again. I've got a gut instinct
about him, about all this." I gesture in a sweeping motion around
the apartment, and before I'm finished my hand is in a fist.
"Funny you should say that, because I do too."
"You've never even met him," I scoff.
"So? We're talking gut instinct. Want to square your instincts
off against mine?"
"Why would I want to do that? I know you're wrong."
"Uh-huh." She nods and smiles sarcastically. "What you
waiting for? Call him."
"The display says his name and number aren't available.
But…." I pause and stare at the phone. "He said I've been ignoring
his calls, but according to the machine this is the only one I got
today. And there's no message from Fitz. Someone's been messing
with this."
I cycle rapidly through the old messages. No Fitz or Nevar.
Just regular stuff like Mom inviting me over for supper.
"So whoever left this message--" Chanlee points around the
room. "--must have erased some of the other messages."
"As in Nevar phoned again after his henchmen left?"
"After the sickos left, yes. When did he call?"
"6:25."
"So they went into their sicko frenzy in the light of day when
they knew nobody would be looking. Like you said, these guys are
no fools."
"Did I say that? I think he's a moron. Because, Chanlee, he
doesn't know who he's messing with." I massage my jaw. It's so
tense, pain is shooting from the joints into my eyeballs. "Don't you
get it?" I motion her to shush then grab a pen and note pad from
my bag and scribble, "They've planted bugs in this mess."
"That's one of his men outside watching?" she writes.
I nod. "I'll prove it to you."

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"You're not going to confront him?!"


Heading for the door, I write, "And you're going to help me."
"Oh no I'm not," she blurts out.

"Why or why do I let you talk me into these things?" she says
as we snake our way through the basement to my locker.
"Because your gut instinct tells you I'm right." We turn a
corner. Ribbons of florescent ceiling lights point the way along each
corridor. But the shadows of countless unknowns inhabit the dark
chain-link cages on both sides of us. "Here we are, number 46.
Fruk."
"The padlock's been cut."
"I didn't expect him to forget this." I open the wire mesh door.
Parts of a racing bike are scattered amongst the remnants of a
sliced and diced tennis racket. "He didn't get around to trashing
anything else. Someone must have scared him off." I step out of
the locker and put the lock back the way I found it.
"You're taking this awfully well. I'm spitting nails."
"Well, you and Dan can share each other's spit, because all
this stuff is his. We traded lockers because it's easier for him to
park his bike in this corner unit." We make our way to his locker.
"Dan who?"
"The guy who lives above me."
"Kuan-yin, you have a hunk sleeping on top of you, and you
haven't told me?!"
"Lay off, Chanlee." I stop in front of unit 56. Whew, it hasn't
been vandalized. "Dan and I share the same fantasy." I unfold a
hand truck and wheel it outside the locker.
"Uh-huh."
"Help me load this, will ya?" We load a trunk onto the dolly.
"My winter clothes are in here." I pat the metal-lined trunk. "And
look, the bastards didn't get my camera, easel or the painting. Or
my sketch book." And hallelujah my bike is over at Mabie-Toogod's.
"I've got Nevar and the others in it. I captured them perfectly. They
all look like idiots. See?"
She ignores the sketch book. "What fantasy?"
"Fitz is our favorite fantasy."
"Oh." Her eyes widen. "Fitz swings both ways?!"
"No, but Dan is keeping a vigil in case Fitz ever decides to
switch."
"Fat chance. Fitz is as straight as they come."
"Exactly. Which means you never can tell."
"Well, I can tell. Fitz isn't gay."
"Neither is Dan."
"So he's bi. I can handle that."

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"How open-minded of you. But he's not exactly bi, either. I


know you've wondered what it would feel like to have gay sex. Well,
when Dan wonders, he fills in the blanks with Fitz, that's all. If Dan
had his way, he and Fitz would star in their own buddy movie and
ride off together on one of Fitz's bikes."
"Doubt they'd make it around the block without fighting over
who gets to ride up front. But a buddy on a bike, hmm…." She
stares up at the ceiling and snaps her fingers. I shake a warning
finger at her. "What?" she says with mocking innocence. "You're
already staring in your own buddy movie with Fitz."
"Oops, forgot my cell at the house." She hands me hers.
"Sorry 'bout waking you, Dan, but this is a two stamper...." She
knocks heads with me to hear him. I shove her away. "You've got
it," I say to him before handing the phone back to her.
"You sneaky devil!" She says devil with such force it echoes
from cage to cage. "Fitz is a twelve course meal, but you never
could resist eating off other people's plates."
"Get over it, Chanlee! Dan kept showing up whenever Fitz
arrived, and it didn't take me long to figure out that it wasn't a
coincidence. So now whenever Fitz drops by, Dan stamps above
my kitchen to warn me." Her unrelenting interest in this man she's
never met is amusing in a maddening sort of way. I fold my arms
and stare at her.
"Uh-huh." She folds her arms and laughs.
"Never mind that. We need to get this stuff up to his pad." I
close up the locker and start pushing the dolly towards the elevator.
She keeps one step ahead of me so she can laugh in my
face. "Kuan-yin, you've got this gorgeous hunk on the side."
"I never said he was gorgeous."
"Uh-huh."

"Dan!" I say to the sleepy hunk who opens the door to


apartment 56. He steps aside to make room for the truck and ties
the belt on his short, thin robe that awakens my imagination. "This
is Chanlee."
While they swap smiles and the thoughts that go with them, I
wheel in the truck.
She slides up behind me and whispers, "This is what your
place should look like."
"Why are you whispering? What's the matter with you? His
hasn't been trashed."
"No, I mean before that," she says, looking at him and
smiling. Actually, it's the same smile that took over her face when
she first saw him.
I have to admit that although this apartment is only one floor
above mine, the relaxed sophistication of the decor makes it look

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like we went up several levels on the social scale. That and the
unforced way he's furnished the place for comfort and low
maintenance gives it a decidedly masculine feel that is more open
than mine even without the furniture.
"Did someone say trashed? What are you two dicks up to?"
He yawns then combs his thick brown hair with his fingers.
"Uh...." I say, warming up for my speech.
His gaze darts back and forth between me and Chanlee then
lands on the dolly.
"Someone trashed my apartment and went after my stuff in
the basement," I say, trying to sound blasé to keep things calm.
Suddenly, he's wide awake. "Someone trashed my bike
thinking it was yours?! No one touches my bike," he thunders and
dashes to the door.
"Hold on, Dan," I say. He stops but keeps his hand on the
doorknob. "You can check your bike in a minute. The guys behind
this are serious. They're heavy duty--"
"And I'm not?" His knuckles go white on the knob.
"What she means is that because you've been drawn into
this, neither of you is safe," Chanlee says.
Like a soothing balm on a wound, her words still his anger.
Something about the way he's looking at her tells me that if I had
said the same thing to him, he would have gone right through the
door without opening it. But he calms down enough to hear us
when we tell him that we need his help without the benefit of an
adequate explanation.
"I don't know why I ever let you rope me into these things,"
he says, shaking his head. He catches Chanlee and I exchanging
knowing glances, and adds, "Ah, Rane got you out of bed too."
She smiles sweetly until I jab an elbow into her ribs.
"Look, I'll pick up my stuff this afternoon," I say, unloading
the dolly. He strides over from the door and helps me. "In the
meantime, we have to get everything out of the lockers. So while
you're down there checking out your bike, load up the dolly."
As soon as he leaves, Chanlee grasps my arm, "Now I know
what you see in him. He looks just like you."
"Hardly. He doesn't have any freckles." Though I must admit
he looks more like me than my brother does.
I open my trunk and rummage through it to keep her from
seeing my reddening face. "But he's only about an inch taller than
us....which gave me an idea."
"Uh-huh. You got the idea as soon as you laid eyes on him,
kiddo. Don't blame you. He's a real hottie. I think that robe he's
wearing blinded me, because I can't see much else now. Not worth
looking at anyhow."
I dig down to the bottom and pull out a plastic bag.

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"Just because he doesn't have anything under it, doesn't--"


"Surly you jest? He has the whole works under there."
"Never mind that." I hand her the bag. "This is the coral
jacket I was wearing at Nevar's. Get it to forensics along with the
prints from that piece of garbage watching us outside."
"I've seen him. He's too careful to touch the bin. So what
prints are you talking about?"
"The ones we're going to get off him." I pull out one thing
after another from my trunk. "You know that disguise I did up when
I was in training?"
"The choirmaster? Surely you're not going out there to tackle
him in that getup?!" She follows me into the bedroom then stops
and gazes around admiringly. "This room is so him."
I glance at the phone tossed on his pillow, the plain bedding
thrown back and his slippers nestled by his bed. Cool air from an
open window fills the green and grey room with an energy that
alerts my senses to his presence everywhere in the room. And
suddenly I'm homesick for Fitz.
"Will you get your mind off him long enough to help me get
into this thing?"
She shrugs and picks up a foam suit. Instantly bored with not
talking about him for a second, she asks, "What is he into besides
you?"
"Drugs." Watching her mouth drop open, I add, "Just kidding.
If you want to know what he's into, ask him yourself."
After we entomb my body in the suit, she helps stuff me into
a pair of spandex pants.
"I don't know how women with implanted boulders can stand
it. I can't see my feet or anything else," I say. "And all this mascara
is making my eyelids so heavy it feels like I'm breaking open
sutures every time I blink."
"The idea, kiddo, is to come up with a way of eroticizing
those muscle-bound eyelids into pleasure toys." She cleans and
buffs my fake leather purse.
I insert cotton rolls between my gums and cheeks to change
the contour of my face. "Damned to hell. This black wig makes my
skin purple. And it looks like I'm wearing roadkill on my head."
"Stop griping. Any kid would love to play with you as a beach
ball."
When Dan returns from the basement he looks at me and
bursts out laughing. "Don't know why I'm laughing. Those punks
stole my derailleur. You know how long it's going to take me to get
another one? I have to order it from France."
"I'm sorry, Dan. I'll make it up to you, I promise." The worry
lines forming on Chanlee's face tell me what she thinks of my
promise, but now that I've made the promise it's worrying me too.

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The part that worries me is that he looks anything but worried. What
is he going to want in return for his derailleur?
"A bike derailleur's not something they can pawn," I
continue. "They just took it to leave a signature of hate." So much
for my exercise equipment. I'll bet they've taken at least one
strategic piece from each machine, so even when I finally get
around to piecing everything together, nothing will work. Not a
damned thing. "Knowing how this guy operates, I'd say he threw
your derailleur in the garbage. The collectors don't come until
Monday, so…."
"You should retrieve it, Rane. After all, Dan's just an
innocent bystander in all this," Chanlee says with that
dreamy-schemey smile back on her face. And now he's sporting the
same smile.
"Listen, Dan, we have to make it look to the guy outside like
Chanlee and I have left. That way, I can go out there after you,
pretending to be dropping off my garbage on the way to work."
"After me?" His forehead furrows with thought then his eyes
narrow. "You're completely daft if you expect me to dress up as
you." Chanlee and I both nod, while he shakes his head.
"Well, Dan," Chanlee says, "you're going to have to ask
yourself whether getting the approval of strangers for the way you
look is more important than helping a friend whose life is being
threatened."
"There are better ways of helping," he says.
"Such as?" she challenges.
The one time it would help for her to reach out to him with a
smile, and she remains stone-faced. I step behind him and stretch
my lips into a smile. She catches my meaning, and he's doomed.

Dressed in my clothes, complete with my sludge-stained


blouse and a wig, he's a perfectly ridiculous copy of me. Nothing fits
right, and all the bulges are in the wrong place. Or right place,
depending on how I look at them.
"One crack, one titter, and these clothes come off," he
warns, standing akimbo.
"Promises, promises," Chanlee says like her forté is flirting
with men in dresses.
"If Fitz could see you now," I say, holding back about as
much as he did when he saw my disguise.
He freezes. "I'm not going anywhere like this till you promise
not to tell him."
"I promise."
He thaws just enough to warn me that he doesn't trust me.
Instead of being put off by his strong reaction to the mention
of Fitz, Chanlee hooks her arm in his and chirps, "As my best

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buddy, how would you like to go around the block with me then
come back and do some serious damage to the ogre haunting your
garbage bin?"

To give them time to circle back on foot, I wait fifteen


minutes. Then I carry a bag of garbage through the parking lot at
the back, treading carefully on the frozen slush from today's melt. It
really would help if I could see my feet. The Watcher is nowhere to
be seen, but he's here. Somewhere he can get me when he wants
to. Eek! Something's touching my leg! I jerk my leg forward to avoid
his grasp. My feet keep going forward and up. My purse flies off my
shoulder and the garbage in the bag escapes as I flip back, levitate
then fall flat on my back. Thank heaven I'm wearing a mattress. I
fling away soggy coffee from a used filter that landed on my face.
Purr, purr.
"Mr Pic--" I gag myself. The Watcher knows I've been letting
Mr McPickles in and out of my apartment. "Go away, stupid cat," I
say loudly enough to be heard by every shadow on the block.
Boing, boing. He climbs the foam mountains of my suit, slips
down onto my face and rolls off.
I try hoisting myself up but my foam body resists being
folded and whoosh! I'm on my back again. I roll over and push
myself off the ice. Oops, my feet slide out and I'm down on the ice,
rocking on my belly. Two more tries and I'm huffing, but at least I'm
standing.
I look around. No Watcher. No Dan or Chanlee, either.
Where are they? And where did Mr McPickles get to? Oh there he
is, rooting around the rubbish that was in the bag. "What do you
have there?" He zips past me with something in his mouth. "It'd
better not be a bone." He jumps up on top of the garbage bin and
starts munching. I move in closer to see him in the light of the alley
lamp beside the bin. Shoot! He does have a bone. "Don't eat that,
you stupid cat!" I reach out and try to grab it from him but he backs
away, and I bounce off the side of the bin. I lift up the right side of
the split lid, and look for a stick or something to get the bone from
him. I might have known. The bin is almost empty. But unless the
shadows are deceiving me, there's a table leg or whatever at the
back. I lift myself up onto the edge of the bin and reach in. Mr
McPickles climbs onto my back and resumes munching on the
bone. "Get off!" I reach around to push him away, lose my balance
and roll into the bin. He stares down at me from the other half of the
lid.
"What are you smiling at?" I snap.
What smells so sweet? And what's that goop I have my hand
in? Don't think I want to know. I grasp the spindle, but it doesn't
budge. I yank hard and something flies up and bounces off my

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stomach. Metal gleams in the dim light. It looks like a wrench with a
daisywheel head. Dan's derailleur!
Suddenly, a shadow darkens the bin. I grab the derailleur as
a head appears over me. The Watcher! I swing at him, but he jerks
his head back and the derailleur strikes against the bin. He holds
up something oblong and flat. A brick?! I scramble under the closed
lid and twist myself around to strike at him with the spindle. Damn, I
can't move in this foam hell. Three arms grope for me. No, five.
What the hell?! Dan's tackling him. While they wrestle with him, I
wrestle with my suit to get up.
"Let him go!" Chanlee says breathlessly. "I said to let him
go!" Her voice is low and menacing.
I grab the edge of the bin and hoist myself up. Urg!
Something swipes at me from behind. Turning with the intent to
destroy my attacker, I stop short and sigh with relief. It's only Mr
McPickles trying to kill the wig on my head. I turn back to the melee
in time to see the Watcher running away.
"Why did you let him get away?" Dan asks her. He looks
more scary than ridiculous, panting and snarling while his wig sits
askew on his head.
"I'll explain lat--"
"You let him get away?!" I snarl at her.
"We got what we wanted," she says in her officious cop
voice. Snatching up my fake leather purse by the handle, she
shakes it in my face. That's what he was threatening me with?! "His
fingerprints are all over it."
"And us," Dan says, dusting himself off.
"Never mind that, you could have at least ID'd him," I say,
rolling out of the bin.
"When we were hiding in the alley, he walked past us, so we
followed him. He got a thermos out of a SUV parked on the side
street. We got the license number."
"So we didn't need to wrestle him for the fingerprints," Dan
complains.
"Oh yes you did," Chanlee and I say in tandem.
"You sleeping under there?" I say and flip the wig off his
head.
He holds up his hands in surrender. "Don't shoot, I'm one of
the good guys, remember?"
"Five'll get you ten the registration doesn't have his name on
it," Chanlee coos for Dan's benefit.
"That still doesn't explain why you let him go," I say.
"I'll explain later," she says tersely.
"A lot of good that'll do. He's the one who should be doing
the explaining," I say, getting more miffed with her by the second.
"By the way, Dan, I found your derailleur in the bin."

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His face lights up and he leaps to the bin, dips into it then
turns back to us with a sour look on his face and no derailleur. "The
punks totaled the mounting clamp and the gear cable anchor bolt is
gone."
We try to comfort him, but seeing Chanlee shiver, he slips an
arm around her waist and urges her to go inside with him. They're
awfully cozy all of a sudden.
She's been acting weird, bouncing from frivolous to
downright idiotic. Why is it so important for her to make me believe
that Nevar is Mr Clean? If I didn't know better, I'd swear she's not
just trying to distract me with her nonsense, she's deliberately trying
to throw me off track. Put together, it all adds up to one thing: She
knows who the Watcher is.

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CHAPTER 5

"May the snakes of hell crawl up my yin and down my yang if I


know the Watcher," Chanlee insists when we're in her car on the
way to my parents' place.
"But…?" She remains silent, so I add, "You had him, then
just like that you backed off, which tells me you think he's a cop."
She nods. "He was wearing a standard issue shoulder
harness. I don't know who he is, though. I swear."
I believe her because she's as perplexed and alarmed as I
am.
We lapse into a strained silence that mellows as I relax with
Mr McPickles on my lap. I left my foam torture chamber and wig at
Dan's, but I didn't have time to take off the makeup.
We pull up in front of my parents' white stucco house fading
into the moonlight.
"Okay, while you're getting some action on his prints and
license, I'll bum a car off Mom or Dad and meet you under the
spruce tree across from Nevar's." I get out of the car and have to
pry Mr McPickles off the seat to get him to come with me.
"The tree isn't a good idea because it'll be daylight by time I
get there."
"Right. Well then, park your car at the bottom of the hill."
"Remember to wait for me if you get there first. Don't go
charging in, both fists and feet flying. They call him The Snowman
in enforcement circles. And not just because his name is snow in
Spanish. Someone said the v is pronounced like a b. Sound right to
you?" I shrug. "What happened to your undying interest in
languages?"
"He's not a language, he's an asshole." With Mr McPickles in
my arms, I sink back down into the front seat with my feet on the
sidewalk. "He wants me dead, and I keep walking into his traps like
some dumbstick kid who doesn't know evil when it's knifing her
heart."
"'Cause you've lost your psychological perspective. You're
going to have to pull back to see past him to the big picture."
"For heaven's sake, Chanlee, two men have been murdered
and a child's been kidnapped. The picture's not too big, it's too evil.
And with each passing day, he gets closer to getting away with it
all." I slap my forehead. "Fruk, I know the truth is in the details. I
should be paying more attention. You too. Don't forget my

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bloodstained top and the Hiker's Malibu." I snap my fingers. "And


make sure you put this stuff in a safe place." I point to my painting
rolled up on top of the sketchbook on the backseat.
"I won't forget." She drops her head on the steering wheel.
"Kuan-yin. I remember when we used to talk about what we'd do
after I become Chief of Police, and you've recovered your first
stolen masterpiece worth at least a billion smackers. You know,
real stuff. Not this garbage." I put a reassuring hand on her
shoulder. She lifts her head and smiles. "I haven't even asked you
how your new job is going. Is your boss giving you any grief?"
The idea of Al chasing me around the table is almost enough
to make me laugh. "No, Al's okay. The job's the only part of my life
right now that totally makes sense. No kidding, sometimes I think
it's too good to be true."
"The job or the boss?"
"Both. Forget it, Chanlee. Believe me, he's not your type.
He…I don't know…He's a mixed bag." Mr McPickles paws at my
hair hanging loosely on my shoulder. "One minute a fuddy-duddy,
the next a fired-up revolutionary. It's like he has his feet planted
firmly in two millennia. He's not spacey, but he asks the weirdest
questions, like: If everyone were honest, what kind of world would
we have?"
She thinks about it then says, "Without question it'd improve
my sex life. With the time I'd save from not having to remove those
maddening little stickers from the fruit and everything else we buy, I
could fuse bodies with Bruno more often. And maybe have enough
time for dessert with--" She stops herself then looks at me like she's
afraid I won't like what she's going to say. "Just how chummy are
you with--"
I interrupt her this time. "I don't want you moving in on Dan.
This may sound strange, but he's a nicer guy than Fitz."
"I knew it!" She smacks the steering wheel. "You do have a
thing for Dan!"
"If I did, I'd play it straight with Fitz and tell him the truth.
You're being a wimpy stinker with Bruno."
"What are you talking about? I haven't even been all the way
around the block with Dan."
"Really? And what room in your mind are you having sex
with him right now, huh, Chanlee?"
I expect her to feign embarrassment, but she takes my
question as an invitation to open the floodgates. "I swear the guy
wears magnets in his pants. You wouldn't believe what it felt like
leaving the apartment and driving him around in my car. Maybe it
was because he was dressed up like you, but honest to God, it felt
like I've known him my whole life."

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Mr McPickles kneads and chews my hair. "Look, I'd better be


going while I still have some hair left."

Walking up to the door of the house, I get the same strange


feeling I always do when I visit my parents. My childhood--with all
its magic, broken promises and untold secrets--is buried within the
walls of this house. It's an incredibly large part of who I am, yet I'm
removed from it because it's not home anymore. It's Mom's. Dad
lives in the garage at the back. At least that's what she accuses him
of doing because he likes to retreat into his workshop to tinker
around with his inventions. The house is the supreme achievement
of her life. We used to live across the street, and it took her and
Dad over ten years of waiting and saving to make the big move.
Brittanski Drive looks like any other street, but it's the great divide
between those who've made it and those who are going to die
trying. Because the houses on this side are on the crest of the hill,
we've got the view of the downtown skyline, Elbow valley and the
mountains. All the people on the other side get to see is us looking
down on them. Tragedies and farces are made of such things. I
should know, I've experienced them on both sides of the street.
As quietly as I can, I retrieve the door key from its secret
hiding place between the wall and the mailbox. I step into the foyer
and the darkness fills with hissing. Loud and in stereo. Sheeka, the
orange and white, bushy-tailed, green-eyed mistress of all she
surveys, springs up at me out of nowhere. Mr McPickles lets out a
howl and transforms himself into a ballistic missile, leaving trail
marks on my arm.
"Sheeka!" I scream.
A lot of good that does. She doesn't listen to anyone but
Mom. Now the whole house is awake and ready to seek and
destroy. I turn on the lights. No Mr McPickles. No Sheeka, either. A
desperate wail comes from the kitchen. Bet he's got the
bushy-tailed wimp cornered. I run into the kitchen and skid into
Dad. He's trying to pry Sheeka off Mr McPickles, who's backed up
against the island, trying to defend himself. Blood is pouring from
his tattered right ear and gouged neck. Great. He escapes being
torn to pieces by a psychotic thug, only to be made into mincemeat
by a psychotic cat?! I grab Mr McPickles, while Dad grabs Sheeka
and pushes her through the cat door to her run outside. He locks
her door, so she jumps up onto the outside window sill and
screams blue murder. Half of Dad's uncombed hair was standing
up, fully awake, while the rest of it was still dozing. Now it's all
standing at attention.
"What are you doing to poor Sheeka?" Mom says from the
doorway. She's wearing a plastic bag over her green-slimed hair,
and a starched white housecoat with matching gloves that make

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her look like a ghoul against the enamel white kitchen. "Come in,
my pet," she coos to Sheeka and reaches around Dad to open the
door.
"Leave her outside," Dad says, refusing to budge from the
door.
Mom looks at me and lets out a squeal. "Who gave you
those black eyes?!" She places a hand over her heart. "Fitz?!
Please don't tell me he did this to you?"
She holds her breath, while Dad rolls his eyes and I hold in a
thousand sighs.
"This is what I look like in makeup, Mom," I say, wondering
what Nevar's going to think when he sees me. I can't picture him
being frightened and blink the useless thought away.
She sighs with relief then shakes a finger at me and Mr
McPickles. "So what's all this, then?"
"Sheeka got at him," I say, holding him against me.
"Oh." She steps closer for a better look. "You'd think, Rane,
you'd have enough sense to keep him in a carrier to give Sheeka
time to get used to him. You're never going to get those stains out
of your jacket. Such a pretty color, robin's egg blue, but hardly
suitable for this time of year." She tsk, tsks then shifts her gaze to
Mr McPickles. "Aw, he has the most darling smile. We'll get you
fixed up." She shoots me a reproving look. "Poor thing." She pets
him by making stroking movements with her hand without letting
her glove touch his fur.
"No need to stay up, Lena," Dad says, moving up behind her
and gently massaging her shoulders. She leans back into his body,
cozy and comfortable. "Rane and I will get him to a hospital."
"Not so fast," Mom says, suddenly stiff as a board and in the
attack mode again. "Rane, what are you doing here, and whose cat
is this?" She pulls out a drawer, takes out a first aid box and puts it
on the island in front of me.
"I'll get changed," Dad says and leaves.
"Rane, whose cat is this?" she repeats, louder and sharper
this time. She hands me a gauze bandage.
"Don't know. He showed up at my back door. Didn't you, Mr
McPickles?" I dab his ear and neck with the gauze, while he tries to
swop at it.
"You don't have a back door. And what kind of name is that
for a cat? Honestly. With your gypsy lifestyle, it's nothing short of
cruel to keep a goldfish much less a cat."
"It's nice to see you're in fighting form too, Mom," I say. At
least she's not dragging out my hope chest and practicing her
matron of honor speech for the wedding she always sees coming
around the corner. "But this isn't a mangy street cat. He's had some
kind of surgery, and the people he belongs with must be worried

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sick about him. Just give me a couple of days, I'll find out where he
belongs."
"I'm sure you will, but why can't he stay at your apartment?" I
start to answer then stop because all my thoughts lead to Nevar.
"Not again?! Don't tell me you're up to more shenanigans
about joining the police force?" I stare at her, trying not to look
guilty. "Oh, Rane, how could you? You're supposed to be the
sensible one. It's bad enough having your brother go all strange
and fall in love with bugs." She shivers and rubs herself like they're
creeping and crawling out of her skin. "You are all right though,
aren't you, pet?"
"Right as rain, as you see," I say with a forced laugh. I would
tell her and Dad the truth about what's been happening if I could
think of a way to keep them from becoming a target if the wrong
person finds out how much they know.
"I thought so. You've got yourself mixed up somehow in the
kidnapping of that boy. Everybody's talking about it. But you never
could settle for just talk. If there's a reckless, dangerous way to get
somewhere, you'll find it. Don't bother denying it. This nose knows."
she says, tapping the side of her nose. "You won't listen to sense,
so there's no point in telling you to stop all this nonsense and marry
Fitz."
"Uh-uh, way too dangerous." Urg, she's going into
mother-overdrive. "Got to go, Mom." I lean over to kiss her. She
leans back to avoid being touched by Mr McPickles, and I have to
settle for kissing the air several inches from her cheek.

In the garage, I load Mr McPickles into the back of Dad's


van. Trying to find a way out, he pokes his paws through the wire
grate door of Sheeka's carrier then tries biting the wire.
"You haven't gotten yourself into any kind of trouble you
can't get out of, now have you Rane?" Dad asks as he climbs into
the van.
"There's a fighting chance I haven't. But I need a car until
Monday. My beater died, you see, and--"
He holds up a hand. "You working on an investigation with
Chanlee?"
I nod. "I'm meeting up with her. Uh, I don't like to ask, but
could you--"
"Take Mr McPickles to the hospital and look after him until
Monday?" I nod and he does too. His long, creased face eases into
a smile that gives him a youthful ruggedness. You'd never guess
that he has spent most of his life in the artificial light of desk lamps,
accounting for other people's money. He slips off his hooded, black
jacket and empties out the contents of the pockets. "Here." He

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hands the jacket to me. "Yours is bloodstained. And take the Audi."
He throws me the remote.
"Uh, I'd rather not. I don't want the responsibility of insuring
I'll bring it back in the condition it's in now." I hold out the remote.
"It has the best insurance." He closes my fingers around the
remote. "Let me worry about the car. You didn't come here at this
godforsaken hour to have me stop you from doing what you know is
right."

What could be more right than exposing Nevar for the


monster he really is? What could be more right than depriving him
of his freedom? Or more right than kicking his butt from here to Spy
Hill?
None of my questions intrude upon the silence or disturb the
breeze as I surveil his house from my vantage point under the
spruce tree. Light from the street lamps falls softly on the snow that
survived the day's melt, bejeweling the night. The glistening carpet
stretches from yard to yard untrampled. Not a place where children
frolic or make snowmen on the lawn. No dogs, no beehives, no fat
cows, no cars, no hikers. Peace reigns. A dark, uneasy peace that
won't lift with the dawn. It doesn't feel right knowing that Nevar is
safe and sound inside his house.
Burr, the rising damp on the bottom of my jeans is freezing
against my legs, and the cold is biting through my hiking boots. I
hear a rustling sound behind me and turn sharply. Nothing moving
except the branch I jostled above my head. Snow trickles down the
inside of my jacket.
Suddenly, light shines from an upstairs window of Nevar's
house, beckoning me. I'd better call Chanlee and tell her to get her
butt over here. Fruk! I don't have my cell. Another window lights up.
This time at the back of the house. He's in the kitchen. No. A
shadow's creeping down the driveway. Towards the house, not
away from it. With a hefty wrench from the Audi tucked in my
jacket, I leap out from the tree. At the corner of my eye I see
footprints cutting across the snow-covered lawn. As I turn, a hand
clasps over my mouth and an arm chokes my neck. The scent of
him. It's Nevar. Panic strikes, but I resist the urge to struggle.
Instead, I push back hard against him and yank down with all my
might on his arm and shoulder while I try to knock his right foot out
from under him. No go. He twists me back onto my heels. I slash
my hand back to knife his groin, but he crushes me into him to
cushion himself.
"No you don't," he says through his teeth and drags me back
towards the tree.
There's no way that tree is going to become my coffin.

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I sweep my foot back and smash it against his leg just above
and to the side of his knee. The kick doesn't blow out his knee cap
because he enjoins his leg movement with mine to block me. While
all this is happening, his grip on my hand loosens and I take a deep
breath through his fingers before biting down on them. The sharp
pain throws him off balance.
We fall together.
I thrust an elbow up into his chest, and he groans. Looking
up, I see a shadow darting out from the driveway of his house. The
Hiker! He's coming right for me. Nevar's backup. I try to scramble to
my feet, but Nevar has different ideas. He pushes me with such
force I fall forward. Something whirs by my right ear as he pounces
on me.
Blinded by the snow I'm eating and breathing, I try lifting my
head. I manage to catch a glimpse of the Hiker running down the
hill, before Nevar pushes my face back into the snow.
"For God's sake, stay down," he hisses, his face up tight
against the back of my neck.
His body isn't pressing down on mine, because he's taking
his weight on his elbows. Just enough room to twist out of his grip.
Thrusting out with my arms, I knock his elbows out from under him.
Instead of losing his balance so I can roll him over, he snatches the
wrench and springs up, pulling me with him.
Breathing hard, mostly from rage, and my right ear ringing
like no one's home, I punch at his neck. He blocks the strike with
his arm. Footsteps crunching the snow behind me make me turn.
More backup coming to his rescue. Not the Hiker this time, though.
I've never seen this goon before. Without turning my face back to
Nevar, I wheel my left leg around in a fake kick that he wards off
with a block. And while he's gloating, I smash his face with a
back-fisted punch. His head snaps back and jerks forward, blood
draining from his nose. I turn to run, but his goon grabs my arms
from behind and pulls them back until my shoulders are locked in
pain.
"Calm down, or I'll break your arms," the goon says,
breathing down my throat.
I feign acquiescence, to concentrate my energy away from
the pain and into my legs.
Nevar scoops up a handful of snow and holds it to his nose.
He bends down and squeezes snow into his other hand. Then he
walks towards me and swings up his fist. I kick out at him, but he
sidesteps while the goon applies more pressure to my arms. Yeow,
if he bends them back any further, I'm going to end up being
quartered. Without lifting my hand, Nevar puts snow inside it and
closes his fist around mine then lets go. What is the psycho creep
up to now? What does he think I'm going to do with the snow

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except throw it at him? Whatever he wants or expects from me, I'm


not going to play his game. I open my hand and a wisp of brown
hair falls on the snow.
My hair?!
The ringing in my ear is suddenly sounding like a bullet shot
from a silencer. A bullet that came so close it gave me a haircut as I
fell. But why would the Hiker shoot at me with Nevar close enough
to take the hit? Confused, I look up at him.
"Enough fun and games for the night," he says with a
fleeting blood-smeared smile. "You keep punching me, I'm going to
start hitting back."
"Go ahead, hot shot, you've got my hands tied behind my
back." He pulls his head back and turns his face away like he
expects me to spit at him. I can't say the thought hasn't crossed my
mind, but I wouldn't give him the satisfaction. It's too much like
admitting defeat.
Nevar walks past me. "We'll finish this inside."
The only way he's going to finish anything with me is over
my dead body. What am I saying? That's at the top of his wish list.
But Chanlee is only a wish away.
I hope.

The goon pushes me into the kitchen of Nevar's house and


releases me. The liberated pain in my arms, shoulders and chest
shoots through my whole body, weakening me. I trip forward, right
myself then wobble backwards into Nevar. He catches me like I'm a
tossed ball then puts me aside like I'm in his way.
"Now behave yourself," the goon growls and pats the right
side of his jacket. "My little friend is quick with the trigger."
I look at him in surprise. Not because of his threat. Hell no,
the surprise comes in just looking at him. He has cop written all
over him, not just cop, but vice cop. An indefinable quality. Not
cockiness exactly, more like an inured confidence that comes from
years of learning where to place the goal posts in the dark. It would
take a universe of forces working against this man to get him to
cross a certain line. So what is he doing with Nevar besides
strong-arming?
Nevar walks past me to the heart of the maple and granite
kitchen. Then he turns around, all fire and ice, and I burst out
laughing. The punch he took tonight on top of the bruising I gave
him yesterday has left his nose and eyes a swollen red, yellow,
green, blue and violet beacon.
"Not hard to tell who has the class around here," the goon
says, giving me the once over with disdain in his eyes. "You notice
he has the decency not to laugh at you."

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"Excuse me," I say. "I didn't realize you abducted me for a


fashion show."
"Decency is a concept some people never grasp," the goon
says, unfazed. He walks by me to hand Nevar a towel.
"And you'd know, being a cop working for this thug." I jerk
my head in Nevar's direction. He wipes his face like I'm boring him.
He and his goon are putting on such a good show, if I didn't know
better, I'd swear they didn't hear me say the word cop.
I stay in the breakfast nook because it's closer to the door.
But a shiver shoots through me because I'm also closer to the spot
where a man gasped his last breath in a pool of his own blood. The
scariest part is that everything's been washed away, including the
truth.
"I'm getting a taste of the kind of decency you're trying to
force me to grasp," I say, pulling out a chair and sitting down at the
sunset maple table. I sit sideways so I can see the door. "The
cowardly kind powered by hypocrisy, that's dangerous for anyone
to come into contact with because it's quick to punish, and so frukin'
warped it can't be satisfied with anything less than torture and
death."
Nevar drops the towel from his face and stares at me like
he's Mr Clean. That's him all right, pure as snow that's been
scraped off the roads. "You've missed your calling, Bambi. You
should have a bully pulpit in the town square."
"While you're knocking 'em dead from your pulpit in court?
How decent of you," I say, rolling my eyes in the direction of the
door. The pallid light of dawn is peering in through the door and
double-decked windows. This is such a grand house. Too good for
him. But then it's not realistic to expect Satan to live in a hovel. This
place is beautiful on the surface, yet utterly creepy like him. Kenny's
tortured calls for help are being held prisoner by these opulent
walls.
The goon tries to suppress a smile. Nevar doesn't bother. He
smiles and continues to stare at me boldfacedly with undisguised
mockery. "Would you like a coffee?" he asks me.
"No thanks, Snow White. I prefer my coffee without
strychnine."
If he takes offense, he doesn't show it. In fact, the more I
talk, the more he stares at me and the bigger his smile gets.
"Looking at you, anyone would have to wonder what's making you
so paranoid. Fiat lux, Bambi."
Now it's my turn to stare. This guy is totally wacked.
"Gee, Snow White, I can't imagine why I would be paranoid,
considering you're holding me against my will."
You frukhead.
"You're free to go, but--"

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"Free?! Yeah sure. Your idea of freedom is to deny others of


theirs."
At least the goon has the sense to stay clear of the verbal
volleys by remaining silent and busying himself with making coffee.
The enticing aroma makes my stomach growl. I wish talk wasn't so
cheap, because I'd kill for a cup of coffee right now.
"Leave if you like," Nevar dares me.
"Right. I leave and you take my life. No thanks, I don't like
the tradeoff."
"Tradeoffs," he says slowly, walking towards me. "Let's talk
tradeoffs."
I tense up, ready to knock his block off if I have to. He sits
down facing me, so close our knees touch. At this range, it's too
easy to lose sight of what a slimefest he is. But any way I look at
him he's a killer. I push back my chair and rest my arm on the table
to brace myself for any sudden movement.
"Through no fault of your own, you're caught up in an
important investigation. That explains Maldoon's presence here."
Maldoon tips his proverbial hat to me.
"As your behavior indicates," Nevar goes on, "you already
know that the investigation involves the men you saw on Mt.
Rundle. One of them tried to kill you tonight because he knows you
have evidence that will help the case we're building against him and
his associates. The man who fell was a tourist from Australia. It
seems no one but you saw him fall, and you have a painting that
locates him and the other two men on the mountain at the exact--"
"Really?" I lean back in my chair and fold my arms. "What do
you want, Nevar?"
"The same thing you want from me: the truth. But I'll settle
for your painting. The one you did of the three men on the
mountain, not the ice-cream cones."
"The truth?! Your humor is awfully black, Snow White."
"And the joke is…?"
"No joke. You want the facts to use as a weapon against the
truth."
He cups his chin in his hand and looks at me thoughtfully. It's
hard to read his face because his eyes are a bloody mess, but I'd
say from the way his eyebrows have plowed together and he's
frowning that the sultan is not pleased.
He bursts out laughing.
"You think I killed Joseph Stampe?" he blurts out between
guffaws. Seeing that I'm not connecting with the name, he adds,
"The man you saw falling." He looks at me askance. "Bambi, what
you're thinking is preposterous." I look at him like he's crazy. "If I'm
the monster you think I am, why aren't you afraid of me?"

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I keep looking at him like he's crazy. "I'd have to be a


retarded lunatic not to be creeped out by a psycho like you."
Fruk. The first rule of survival when dealing with a predator is
not to show your fear. My fear is the source of his power. I should
know better than to give him carte blanche. It's just that he gets me
so….He reminds me of the fly at Al's place. Except that after I
capture him and put him outside, then I'll swat him. Without
hesitation.
"Bambi…." he says and reaches out to touch my face.
I guard my face with my arm. He grabs my wrist to keep me
from following through with a blow to his face. The sureness of his
grip tells me he's ready for a fight.
"The puncture marks on your neck and these scratches on
your arm need tending," he says reproachfully, like I'm a naughty
child. He yanks me to my feet.
I vibrate with the urge to bolt out the door. But Kenny's
where Nevar is. He's probably too smart to keep Kenny here, but
there may be something he's overlooked. Something as small,
commonplace and critical as a linchpin.
"I'll keep the coffee hot," Maldoon says and bites into a
croissant. Then he adds as we leave the kitchen, "And no funny
business, Bambi."
I dismiss him with a shrug and follow Nevar into an atrium
with opposing walls of stone and glass, and trees disappearing into
the sky. I pause to contemplate the vibrant, soaring beauty
oblivious to all evil. He leans over the balustrade of a bridge above
me and says, "So where's your cat?"
"I don't have a cat."
I cross the bridge and follow him into a self-indulgent
bedroom with linen walls, regal-sized bed and barely-there colors
that soothe the nerves and flatter the skin.
"Either he scaled the wall to get to your balcony or someone
put him there." He disappears into the adjoining bathroom.
"You see an awful lot from these windows." Like the color of
my bedroom, the style of my toothbrush, the scent of my sheets
and the feel of my underwear.
"I've never been to your apartment."
"What a wonderful eye for detail you have, considering
you've never seen my place." Staying by his bed so he doesn't
notice a difference in the distance of my voice, I check under his
bed and pillows, and search his night table. Aha, a little leather
book. I pocket it.
"I said that I've never been there. I didn't say I've never seen
it."
Silence. Uh-oh, he's coming out.

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"What you need is in here," he says from the doorway while I


sit cross-legged like an angel on his bed.
I join him in the L-shaped room where he resumes setting up
his shaving things on one side of a freestanding octagonal double
vanity. I take my time walking over to the other side of a two-faced
mirror suspended from the ceiling, separating the two sinks. And
us. This room was made for intimate privacy. But where's the
woman who shares the intimacy?
Eek! I exclaim to my image in the mirror. My overdone,
smeared makeup distorts my features and the raw paranoia on my
face is making me look like I'm bent for hell. Or dying. "I'd be the
surefire winner at a fright night contest," I say, too surprised to be
embarrassed.
He peeks around the mirror, his face half covered with
shaving cream.
"Only if I'm not a contestant."
His soft laughter grates on me. I don't like the feel of any of
this. Here we are, two people, worlds apart, bantering quietly on
opposite sides of a mirror--and everything else. Like Kenny doesn't
exist and would be irrelevant even if he did.
He comes around to my side. "I'm having a shower. Care to
join me?" The damp towel he's using to wipe the shaving foam off
his face leaves his smirk intact. I ice him. "Go ahead and use
whatever you need."
"Nevar, I need to know what you want from me."
"We've already been through that, Bambi," he says from
around the corner hiding the rest of the beaded-board room. "I'm
waiting for you to deliver."
"What's so important about the painting?" I say, playing
dumb to get him to talk while I scurry around searching through
everything I can get my hands on.
"The subject matter, not the way it's painted," he says over
the sound of running water. His voice is serious rather than teasing.
And for this I endure his presence?!
"So your idea of a tradeoff is to get me to give you a painting
you've already stolen from me, and in return you insult my talent?"
While I'm on the floor peering under the vanity, he suddenly
appears before me, gloriously wet and naked except for a towel
he's clutching at his waist. "You don't have the painting?"
I shake my head and get up slowly because at this angle the
towel is merely decorative. He's definitely a natural blond and
infinitely better built than I would have cared to guess.
"And you think I do?" he asks like he's the one who can't
believe what he's seeing. "Bambi, surely you'll admit that the logic
isn't on your side? Why would I go through the trouble to try to get it
from you if I already have it?"

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"To make me believe you don't have it."


"When did you discover it was missing?"
"The same time I discovered you trashed my place."
"You're wrong, Bambi. I didn't trash your place. And you
know why? Because I know where the real action is." He's almost
believable, standing there looking fierce yet surprisingly wounded.
"Who else have you told about the painting?"
"One other person."
"Chanlee?"
He knows who she is?
I nod, and he shakes his head. "You've told someone else." I
shake my head, and he nods. "Some way, some how, you told
someone."
"No I didn't," I insist.
"I prefer to think you did." He gives me a loaded look and
walks back towards the running shower.
I avert my eyes. For at least a second. Then I gawk with my
eyes and mouth wide open. This whole stinking mess is just too
crazy. Or is it me who isn't making sense? Don't know how else to
account for the wild thoughts invading my head. I close my eyes to
break the spell cast by smooth, taut skin accenting sinuous curves.
I smother the fire.
What did he just say? Why would he prefer to think I've been
shooting my mouth off about the painting? I open my eyes, and with
the dawn comes the light. He's not in sight, but the truth is. He's
accusing me of having sold out to the Hiker.
I march around the corner. Dark green tiles in the oversized
shower cast his steamy body into relief as he washes himself. This
guy doesn't need to use words or anything else to grandstand.
"Where is the body of the man who was murdered here? Who was
he, anyway? And what are you really after, Nevar?"
"Decided to join me in the shower after all?" He opens the
door, and I back away. Not all that far. My eyes are acting like
they're found what they've been looking for their whole lives. Whew,
it's hot in here.
"You're not going to get clean with your clothes on," he says,
his voice as warm and soft as the water.
"You're dreaming, Snow White. Dreaming. What did you do
with the body? And how have you managed to involve the police in
the cover-up? And--"
"You really want to know?" he says. The water on his skin is
teasing. Holding onto the door he leans forward and whispers,
"Then give me the goods, baby."
I wince at his lousy gangster impersonation.
He fixes his eyes on mine. "You have something that men
are willing to die for."

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"What'll you give me in return for the painting?"


He laughs. "Bambi, do you honestly think anyone would kill
for one of your paintings?"
"Listen you--"
"Sorry for the interruption, Stefan," Maldoon's voice calls out
unapologetically from around the corner, "but Tildy needs to talk to
you."
"Well, Bambi," he says, sounding disappointed but looking
expectant. "It looks like you'll have to get undressed yourself. But I'll
be back in time to scrub your back."
"In your dreams, Snow White."
As soon as he's out of sight, I clench my hands and scream
inwardly. The primitive, irrational part of me is refusing to believe
I'm right about him. Because he turns my nerve endings into horny
devils that stoke the fires of hell in me. I throw myself face down on
his bed and sink into the down. And keep sinking until I hear him
call my name.
"Bambi?"
I roll over and open my eyes. "That's not my name," I say to
his colorful face peering down at me.
"What would you like to eat?"
"Everything." I stretch and glance at the clock on the night
table. "Twelve-thirty?!" The car auction started at twelve o'clock. I
jump up and look wildly around the room.
He gives me a wide berth like there's a maniac loose in the
room and points to the bathroom. "Calm down, you didn't turn into a
pumpkin at twelve."
"I know. I turned into something far worse: one of your
accomplices."
I avoid looking in the mirror. I know I look like an alien who
forgot to pack a brush and comb before taking off on a thousand
year flight.
After I wash up, he follows me as I dash outside without the
leather book I found. The jerk stole it from me while I was sleeping.
"Now what?" I say impatiently, turning to face him.
His shoulders are hunched from the cold, and he's warming
his hands in his pockets. Not exactly the image of a man about to
attack. I relax enough to stop growling.
"Out here, it's just the two of us."
"So what's your point?" The chill in my voice blends with the
air.
"Inside the house you talk and act like you're performing for
a hidden camera. The house isn't wired, but you are. I thought that
out here we could talk without anyone or anything running
interference between us."

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"You're such a thieving liar, Nevar. You've never been


straight with me yet. All I've been getting from you is bullshit as you
do the high fandango around the truth."
"And you've been straight with me? Where's your paint--"
"You can't answer a simple, straightforward question without
crapping on the truth."
"Yes I can."
"Oh yeah? Where are you from, Nevar?"
"Rocky Mountain."
"You mean Rocky Mountain House?"
"No, east of that."
"We're east of that, but so is Europe and the rest of the
world. And that's your idea of a straight answer? Screw you,
Nevar."
I leave him standing there, half-smiling, half-shrugging,
totally annoying.
"Bambi, you might want this on your travels." He holds out
the Audi wrench.
I turn back instead of turning onto the driveway. "Don't think
this changes anything, Nevar. Because it--"
"Put the weapon down, then put your hands behind your
head," a voice commands through an amplifier.
We freeze and fire accusing glances at each other.
"You're not going to get away with this, Nevar." I lunge for
the wrench, but he throws it behind me. "So help m--"
"Step away from him," the voice booms.
"For God's sake, do as he says," Nevar warns as he puts his
hands behind his head. "This is no time to prove to the police you
can pass their physical."
Hell, does the whole world know I didn't make the grade? I
lock my hands behind my neck and turn slowly. A bevy of Tactical
Unit weapons point at us.

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CHAPTER 6

Someone steps out from behind a cruiser cutting off the driveway.
"Chanlee?!" I blink in surprise.
"What are you doing?!" she exclaims.
"What the hell do you think I'm doing? I'm trying not to get
my head blown off."
"You look…you look like you've been holding up pretty well."
The alarm contorting her face softens into a worried, puzzled
expression. She must have waited for me at the bottom of the hill
and stared at the empty Audi until her impatience grew into raging
paranoia.
"Cancel the war. Nevar hasn't been holding me against my
will," I say and fling my arms down with an exasperated sigh. But
relief eludes me because I'd like to wring her neck.
She looks past me at him. "Put your arms down, Mr Nevar,"
she says apologetically, saving her resentful smile for me. "Why are
you wearing that jacket?" she yells more as an accusation than a
question.
"Why do you think? It's cold out here," I yell back, upping her
accusatory tone.
I glance over my shoulder at Nevar. Tac guys swarm around
him like they're seeking autographs. He gives me a secret smile
that makes me feel strange, mostly because I know what it means.
I turn back to Chanlee, and we walk past the firing line onto
the street.
"What will the neighbors think?"
"Who gives a shit? They're not your neighbors."
"That's not what I mean, Chanlee. How am I going to stake
out his place with the neighbors spying behind every bush?"
"Surely you jest? Look around you, kiddo."
I look around. No one congregating around the scene. No
one peering out windows. Everything basking in the sun as though
nothing counts for anything. We walk on moodily.
"With that getup and your hair done up like that, you don't fit
the description I gave them. At first we thought you were one of his
accomplices."
Little does she know.
"I was going to call you," I finally say, "but you've got my
cell."

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"I do not. You left it at my place." Her voice is assured,


hard-edged. "What difference does that make? If he wasn't forcing
you to stay in his house, you could have used his phone. You were
supposed to wait for me. Remember? What were you doing in there
all that time, anyway?"
"Uh, sleeping. Mostly."
"Uh-huh."
I stop and glower at her. She holds up her palms. The
teasing curiosity on her face is poorly veiled, but I let it pass and we
resume our walk to the steel blue Audi.
"Bringing in the cavalry was a bit much. Why the heavy
artillery?"
"When you didn't show up, I came up here and the only sign
of you was the blood by the blue spruce and the prints in the snow
indicating a struggle had taken place. One look at him and I knew
that he's the one who took the hit, but how was I supposed to know
that when you never bothered to call?"
"That doesn't explain the artillery. You must have found out
something about Nevar that confirms my suspicions about him."
She nods like she has to force herself to do it. "The Malibu
the Hiker was driving came up a dud. It was hot. And so far there's
no match for the blood on your blouse. What's got me gnawing my
knuckles is that the Watcher's prints belong to a cop, Jake Hulladin.
But you ready for this? He's supposed to be on vacation. Nevar's
definitely up to his yin-yang in something."
"Hulladin's in vice, right?"
She stops suddenly. "What makes you say that?" She snaps
her fingers in anticipation.
"Nevar's strong-arm is in vice. Have you heard of a
Maldoon?"
Troubled thoughts cloud her eyes. "Not good news. He's on
suspension, pending an investigation involving a young boy."
We stare at each other, our eyes lit up by the same idea:
Maldoon is the connecting link between Nevar and Kenny. But
something's not jibing. Nevar's been too careless in exposing
Maldoon. Too careless with a guy like Nevar adds up to deliberate.
What is it about Maldoon that he wants me to know?
Lost in thought, we walk the rest of the way in silence, our
shoulders hunched and our heads down as though we're butting
our heads against the wind.
Getting into the Audi I say, "I have to meet Fitz at the car
auction. I'll catch you later."
"I can live with that. I could use 40 thousand winks." She
pulls out her black cell from her jacket. "Here. Use mine." She digs
deeper into her pocket. "You'd better have this headset too. Just in

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case." She peers through the window into the backseat. "You don't
happen to have a cola in there, do ya?"

The dealers are out in full force at the vehicle impound lot. I
spot Fitz amongst them and snake my way through to the front of
the huddle around Srunk, the auctioneer.
"Anything good left?" I ask Fitz after I tug on his sleeve to get
his attention.
"I've got an inexhaustible supply," he says in a lecherous
voice that matches the expression on his face until he notices what
I'm wearing. "Where were you last night?"
"Never mind that. I didn't have time to check the list on the
net. What number are they on?"
He taps number sixty-one on the list he's holding. Before I
can read the description, Srunk moves onto the next vehicle and
the huddle shifts along with him.
"This is yours, sugar," Fitz whispers.
Srunk is Jack's bean stalk. He's so tall, he can command a
view of the huddle with one glance down his long nose. Nothing, no
one escapes his beanie eyes. But he's also too thin to get in
anyone's view of the cars. I eye the flaming yellow custom job
behind him.
"Forget it, Fitz. I'm not driving around in a squashed
spaceship."
"This is the one you want," he insists with a maddening
smile. "Trust me."
"Yeah, sure. The last time I trusted you, I ended up carrying
the vehicle home."
"Before or after you mastered the tailwhip sexchange?"
"Don't you try to sweet talk your way out of this. You said it
wasn't going to rain."
"It didn't rain. It snowed." Suddenly, a shadow crosses his
face. My lips tighten with guilt. "Chanlee phoned me this morning
looking for you. Who were you with?" His voice becomes more
sharp-edged with each word. And suspicion.
"The starting bid is $3000…," Srunk says at a fast clip.
"I picked up this mysterious guy in a slick, black coat. Just
couldn't say no to that knock 'em dead charm of his, so--"
"I've seen that jacket before on…" his right eyebrow lowers
slowly "…on your father." His smile is back in the saddle. "So cut
the bull, cutie-patootie, and give me a hug."
He wraps his arms around me before I'm finished speaking
and plants a big, wet kiss on my lips as I breathe out a full-bodied
hug.
"That's better," I say, trying to pull away.
"$2400 anyone? $2300…," Srunk sings on.

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Fitz holds on and kisses me again. And again. Such is love


with a man who's been hoarding his inexhaustible supply.
"$900...$800. No?" Srunk jabbers on. "Come now, don't any
of you know a good buy when you see one? $700…"
With each kiss my lips keep getting warmer and his get
juicier.
"Sold to number 278 for $400. A steal."
The huddle shuffles along. Good, because I needed to come
down from Planet 9 for air. "What moron bought that piece of junk?"
I ask no one in particular and scan the huddle for a smiling fool.
The only one smiling is Fitz. But his number is 26. His sassy,
gotcha expression makes me look at my card. Damn. I'm 278.
"You held my card up?!" I smack him with the card.
Making a big pretense at being hurt he says, "You heard
Srunk. It's a steal."
He tunnels a route through the huddle.
"Yeah sure," I say, staying tight behind him before the
huddle closes in on me. "That's why no one else but this fool bid on
it."
He shakes his head, while his smile stretches into a laugh
and he pats the squashed flying saucer. "I spread word that it's not
roadworthy."
"Oh, and that would be a hard sell. Even the guy who made
it wrote it off. He modified so many of the parts that even the
scrappers don't think it's worth towing to their yards."
"The way it is now it can't go anywhere on its own steam.
But I've got the guys in the shop fabricating the parts it needs.
Once they're in, this baby's gonna fly. And so will you, Rane,
because before you leave next month, you can unload it for at least
thirty thou."
"Really? I've got a better idea. You're going to pay the $400
then tow this piece of garbage to the dump." I kick the fender and
the driver's door handle pops off.
"You won't believe the mileage you're going to get, and
propane is such a good--"
"This sucker guzzles propane?"
"Sips propane, my cutie-patootie, sips.
"How do you want to die?"
An arm slips around my waist from behind. I turn and see
Schnell, the only other dealer who has the means and hutzpa to
give Fitz a run for his money. "Great seeing ya again, Raney," he
says, squeezing my waist. "Gimme a call when ya wanna unload
the yellow babe."
I give him a long, hard look to see if he's had a lobotomy
since the last time I saw him. He runs a hand across the top of his
head, smoothing down the long wisp of brown hair that he has

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fanned and pasted across his bald dome. And his x-ray eyes are
checking out what they're seeing under my jack and beyond. I'd say
everything's in order with him.
He gets out his wallet and hands Fitz five twenties. "Always
wondered why the miserable old coot never done herself in," he
says with regret. "That ass of yours ain't doing anyone no favors."
He looks at me like he's snacking on someone else's treats.
"Present company excepted." He winks and forces his way back
into the huddle.
Ah, I get it. The good stuff is under the hood or Fitz wouldn't
be going through so much trouble over it. He doesn't have any duds
in his harem. And Schnell figures he stands a better chance of
getting a deal from me, because if he had entered the bidding he'd
have to go over the top to get the yellow job from Fitz. Both of them
are using the right strategy if I were really that much of a pushover.
"How does it feel to know that he makes love to you every
time he bonks his wife?" Fitz asks.
"Charming. That's crude, even for you. But never mind that.
If you colluded with him to fix the bid, why is he paying you?"
"I won a bet with him. We saw Srunk's wife smile."
"No kidding?!" I chuckle. The last time anyone caught
Srunk's wife smiling is when she had an unrestricted view of Fitz's
butt. Even then her smile could have passed for a perfunctory
grimace.
"If I'm going to round up the next car I have to get back into
the hustle," Fitz says. "Where do you want to go for eats after,
sugar?"
"Going to have to pass. Way too much to do. For starters, I
want to chase down this guy with the killer charm." My forced levity
goes over with a thud. "See you tonight."
Leaving, I blow him a kiss as suspicion creeps into the
disappointment on his face.

On the way to pick up my things from Dan's apartment, I


drive by the motorcycle park and see a bike sailing into the sun
before splashing down. Who in their right mind would navigate a hill
with the trails saturated with today's melt? Some thrill-seeking
fanatic too obsessed with getting a rush to care about the
difference between nerve and recklessness. Just my kind of guy.
What he couldn't teach me about riding bikes!
I veer off in the direction of the hill and wait for him to come
down off his high, hopefully without too much singeing. Bike and
rider appear in silhouette at the top of the hill then plunge straight
down. Swoosh! They disappear into a puddle at the bottom. Then
like a Phoenix they fly out of the blaze of mud. He has to be tied to
the damned machine.

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I wave him over, but he turns around and ascends the hill.
Not once but several times, with me waving like a hot-to-trot
groupie each time. Finally, he rises out of the blaze and waves
back at me. Coming at me, he stops the bike so close my toes curl
up protectively.
"I want to learn how to ride. Would you be willing to teach
me?" Silence emanates from this forbidding looking creature from
the deep and on high. "I'll pay you."
With his goggles covered in mud, it's a mystery how he's
taking my offer. He lifts his goggles onto his helmet. One glance at
me and he explodes into laughter. High-pitched and unrestrained.
He pulls off his helmet and shiny red hair tumbles down onto his
filthy jacket. Correction: her filthy jacket.
"Fitz's babe!" she says and gasps for air.
I've been called worse things, but never with such relish. "I'm
not his babe."
"No offense, Rane," she says, pulling off her right glove and
offering me her hand. "Lulie Fine." Her hazel cat's eyes still dancing
with laughter, she studies my face. "It's too hilarious. You've been
with Fitz how long now? And you haven't got the hang of riding?!"
"Hey, Big Lulu! You through for the day?" a fellow biker calls
out after hitting bottom.
"You've got it, Mick," she hollers.
We shield our eyes and watch him traverse the hill.
"The front wheel's canting. He's going to high side it," I say.
His bike crashes sideways. He flies to the right, rolls then picks
himself up.
She pats me on the back. "Well, hon, at least you know a
squid when you see one." She stands back and looks me over like
she's sizing me up for a coffin. "Not bad."
"For a spectator," we finish together.
"I'm no biker, but I'm not exactly a tanglefoot, either. I rode a
scooter when I was going to school in Italy, and I have my license,
but I don't know how to ride, you know, really ride. Fitz likes me to
ride wrapped around him. But no matter what bike he takes on the
road, he never gets the finger from anyone on a hog. Now that's
riding."
"No fooling." Then she sobers up abruptly. "I don't ride bitch
with anyone. No butt-kissing sissy bars for me. Want to hop into the
saddle right now?"
"Uh, I'm not going up there in this outfit," I say.
"With that attitude, any self-respecting bike will have you
nipple surfing in no time flat." She strips off her body armor, and as
she shrinks down to human size she grows bigger in my eyes.
"I was thinking I could crawl around on a road bike before I
start jumping off mountains."

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"Here, you'll need a skid lid." She shoves her helmet at me.
"I have leathers you can wear, and we can use the slalom here."

"With this baby you're going to do more than crawl," Lulie


says as she rolls a Ducati from the back of her truck. "She's no
wrestler. She doesn't hesitate to deliver the power when you need
it." She invites me to take the reins by patting the saddle. "While
you get the feel of her, I'll set up the cones."
On her machine and in her husband's leathers, I feel
removed from myself, like I'm buried under someone else's skin.
She drills, drills and drills me on the dirt slalom. After the first few
hundred runs in lock-to-lock turns through the plastic cones, I can't
tell whether I'm turning or the world is. And Lulie is doing more
roaring and whining than the Ducati.
"You're strangling her," she shouts as I try to execute a 360
degree turn with continuous full lock. "You're transferring your
weight too soon. Ease up. Don't overdrive her. She'll have more
respect for you if you don't give into her leaning attitude." While I
struggle to keep the front from slewing sideways, she yells, "Okay,
Rane, roll 'er off."
I cruise up to her as Mick does the same from the other
direction. Looking like he's a mobile puddle, he says from inside his
helmet, "This isn't happening. No way, man, you're letting someone
ride the Duke?!"
"Fitz won't let her ride his. That's good enough reason for
me," Lulie says picking up the cones. She directs me to meet her
over at the truck.
While I'm lining up the bike at the back of her pickup, my
rearview mirror fills with a grey SUV. The idiot driver must think I
look good as a hood ornament. Shit, shoot, shite! He's not going to
pull over, because it's the Hiker. I turn in time to keep him from
crushing me against her truck. Dialing lots of throttle, I carve a wide
arc to keep him from backing up onto me. The hill looms before me,
but this Ducati will die trying to get over it. She was born to
command the road. I rev her up for the exit. A flash glance back
and I catch Lulie jumping up and down and punching the air with
her fists. Staying true to her nature the Ducati gets all fired up
without acting temperamental. With a booming roar we downshift
into the corner, taking me onto the pavement with the Hiker in
pursuit. But I cut it too tight and skid into a pile of slush. My racing
heart tells me to brake hard, but my brain overrides that suicidal
missive. I let off the brake and hold tight, steer into the slide, smart
kick us upright and get the wheels rolling true.
The Hiker doesn't throw me into the big highway in the sky
because a car comes between us. In a matter of seconds I become

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everything I loathe in a driver: a raging tailgater, stop sign-runner


and lane-changer without consideration for anyone but myself.
Just like the fiend trying to kill me with his SUV.
Riding the Dead Man's Alley between lanes, I head due west
to get on the other side of MacLeod Trail because then I'll be on my
turf. I don't know the nooks and crannies of the industrial parks on
the east side. The light turns red at the intersection ahead, and the
Hiker is only one car behind. He crowds the driver into swerving
into the far lane and hanging a right. A sedan, which is the only
thing between me and the intersection, is a deathtrap because the
SUV is going to ram me into it. With only enough time for a lifesaver
glance behind, I swoop to the right between the sedan and the
curb.
The light turns green, and I roar out without anything
between me and the cross-traffic on my right except a hope and a
prayer that the Hiker doesn't know that on the other side of
MacLeod the curb dips then rises sharply to slow down drivers like
him intent on killing someone. I push my body up from the saddle
and hug the tank with my knees. There's no room for error. A driver
jumps the gun and turns onto my tail as I hit the speed bump dead
on. The SUV takes the bump in stride and swerves in front of me. I
veer to the right and the van goes ahead of me. Then I cut through
a gas station back onto MacLeod and take a long, slow breath. I
exhale with the SUV breathing down my neck.
I swoop west off MacLeod.
All right you cutthroat, hell-bound bastard, you're on my turf
now.
Assuming nothing but his determination to annihilate me, I
lead him through the residential streets of my youth. The roads are
covered with icy patches that I avoid like they're dynamite. I turn
onto a street canopied by elms that shed most of their leaves with
Thursday's snowfall. Damn. They're dry on top but wet as hell
underneath, making them about as safe as riding on an ice rink.
Swearing a blue streak, I ease up on the throttle to keep the bike
from squirting out from under me. The SUV gains on me, getting
close enough to whack me like a hockey puck to the other end of
the street that ends in a ten foot high cement sound barrier. I kill
that nightmare by steering clear of the traction busters and veer up
onto the sidewalk. Foreshortening and a six-foot high hedge
conspire to hide a narrow street running the length of the barrier.
With any luck the Hiker hasn't seen it. I swoop to the right and
without stopping my engine, I come to a dead stop. I hold my
breath without dabbing my foot on the pavement. The SUV shoots
ahead of me and crashes into the cement while trying to negotiate
the tight blind right onto the narrow street. While he's bouncing off
the wall and sucking up his airbag, I cross my toes on the footpegs

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and lean and dip into the corner tightly enough to save myself from
becoming wall graffiti or another windshield wiper on an oncoming
vehicle.
Luckily, no one's on the street. The deadended road that's
going to take me and the Ducati over a cliff if I don't keep my speed
perfectly in sync with the ground. Before me a footpath blocks fools
like myself crazy enough to take the plunge down the escarpment.
On the left a massive interchange blocks me. But I slip through a
gap between the bumper guard and the corner of a fence lining the
escarpment. I used to take this route when I was a kid. No sweat.
But I was riding a measly mountain bike then. I stay up on the top
until the edge softens into a more forgiving grassy slope. I take a
deep breath, lean the bike out and my body into the slope and
descend crosswise. The slope holds and so does the Ducati.
At the bottom, I head for the interchange to get me onto the
freeway. But I glance up and see the SUV turning around at the
end of the road. The Hiker's going to circle back and greet me
because he knows where the on-ramp leads. Damn. I gear down
until he disappears down the road. Then I turn around sharply and
head in the opposite direction to the bridge. It's only open to
pedestrians and bicycles, but I'm going to have to chance it.
Turning onto the cement bridge, I blast my horn to warn a pair of
lovers walking hand in hand that I'm coming through. They give me
the royal finger as I jockey for space to charge past them. I can't
dawdle or the Hiker will spot me. Taking its cue from me, the Ducati
accelerates aggressively as I gear up and drop my shoulder into a
crosswind lashing out at me. In my rearview I see the male half of
the couple talking into a cell. Lulie's going to explode into a spitfire
when she gets cited for my misdeeds.
As I'm about to applaud myself for making it over the bridge,
a woman riding a bike pulling a baby in a cart suddenly appears
around the corner. Fruk! I thumb the kill button and brace myself.
"You're not allowed on the bridge, you Neanderthal yo-yo,"
she screams as she passes me.
No shit.
With the Hiker off my back, the rest of the way should be a
cakewalk, but I find myself riding into a black cloud that bursts over
my head. The rain-slicked roads bring the oil to the surface, giving
me the thrill of riding on a treacherous minefield with the rain pelting
me while it nearly blinds me.
I detour to my parents' place.
By time I turn onto Brittanski Drive, the vengeful cloud that
dumped a load on me has floated merrily on its way, leaving the
pavement dabbled with sunshine. And in one of those pockets of
light across from my parent's house, I see a parked gold Prius.
Nevar. What the hell is he doing here? Staring at him leaning back

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against the car with his arms folded, I almost miss the turn into the
driveway and out of the sunshine. I have to straighten up as I go
into the curve and apply the brakes hard before I can lean into it
again. But I bring the Ducati and myself to a stop. Upright.
"Well, well, if it isn't Bambi," Nevar says behind me.
I swing my leg over the saddle and turn to face him. The
soles of my boots are too wet to grip the slate, and I kiss the
driveway with my butt.
I spring to my feet before he can reach out with a helping
hand. His smirk clips me though, making me sore.
"What do you want?" I snap.
"Everything. But we can start with your painting if you like."
"I'd like you to leave." He shakes his head. "Don't you ever
sleep?"
"Yes, but not when I'm awake."
"Very funny. Buzz off, Nevar." I take off my helmet and scowl
at him.
In the light of day his wounds look awful, but I can see past
all the colors, the trench coat and his insolent expression to what
lies beneath. I refocus on the bike, verify neutral and get the Duke
rumbling and rolling towards the garage.
Mom charges out the front doorway. "Rane?! I was
wondering who on earth was making such a horrible racket."
She must have been preparing plants for overwintering,
because she's dressed in old jeans and one of Dad's stained
T-shirts.
"Shut that thing off!" she hollers. I do as she says, and she
turns her fire on Nevar. "Is there any reason you're on my
property?" she asks him, frosting her fire with ice. He doesn't know
it, but he's getting the royal badass treatment. She's so ticked off at
him for not being Fitz that she can't even be bothered to tidy up the
bun unraveling at the back of her neck.
"I'm here to conduct some business with Rane," he replies
sweetly. Preoccupied with the damage on his face, she avoids
getting tangled up in the undercurrent raging between him and me.
"We were just about to leave."
"We?!" I say akimbo. "For a guy who doesn't sleep, you sure
are a dreamer. There's no way in hell I'm going anywhere--"
"Rane! How do you know he doesn't sleep?" Mom interrupts.
Her eyes narrow. "What are you up to?"
"Um, it's just business," I say, wagging a finger between him
and me.
"Does this business involve the neighbors?" she asks.
Nevar and I exchange glances to see who's going to tackle
this one.
"No," we say together.

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"Well then," she says, "why are you out here seeking
counsel with them?"
"Let's continue this meeting inside, by all means," he says,
walking past her towards the door.
She watches him disappear into the house. After the initial
shock, her face reddens and her bifocals steam up along with the
rest of her.
I slip the helmet back on to hide my amusement. A red flag
should be unfurling in my mind, but something, call it gut instinct or
stupidity, is making me think Nevar doesn't mean my family any
harm. Maybe it's a misplaced hope that his malice is limited to a
predilection for young boys. That he kidnaps? Suddenly, I see red.
"Aye, aye, aye!" Mom says and slaps her cheeks. "When
you said you were in trouble, you didn't let on you were in this kind
of trouble." She looks at me like she's watching me shoot Fitz down
in flames. Then she rubs noses with my helmet and peers through
the visor. "Anyone home in there?" she says, knocking on the
helmet. "Please tell me you're not going all strange on me like your
brother."
I lean back so far I knock into the bike. I grab the bars in
time. "Who I go with is my affair." I mount the Duke.
"Tori Rane! How could you be so selfish?!" she says,
recoiling in horror. "They're my grandchildren." She taps her heart
with a fist.
"I have to put this in the garage."
"Tell your father supper is ready," she says to my back.
"Then come inside and tell your friend he's not invited."
The garage door rolls up as I approach it.
Dad looks admiringly at the Ducati, while I park it in the
corner of the crowded garage. Contraptions, spare parts and
gizmos jostle for room amongst the tools, shelves and benches
lining the walls. I take off my helmet and plunk it down on a bench
beneath a backlit sign he made up that sings, "Home sweet home,"
on the hour.
With his hands shoved in his perennial green taupe
cardigan, he walks around the bike. "She's a beaut. Bet she's a
bitch, though."
Taking off my gloves, I shake my head. "She's so good she
makes love to you in any gear."
"You don't say." He chuckles then shuts it off abruptly and
eyes me suspiciously. "You didn't trade the Audi for her, now did
you?"
"Just borrowing it. By the way, supper's ready." Then in the
same breath, I slide in, "And I have company."
"He's the trouble you're in?"

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I shake my head. "Uh, yes. But not in the way you're


thinking."
"So what's the problem?"
"Mom wants him to leave. Would you be a doll and tell him?"
"He's your friend, you be rude to him."
"He won't listen to me."
He scratches his head. "All right. Just give me a couple
minutes." He returns to his favorite bench and begins tinkering with
a wooden box.
"What you working on?"
"Don't know yet."
I unzip Lulie's jacket and pull out Chanlee's cell. "How's Mr
McPickles doing?"
"Just fine," he says, pointing to a bag of nails on the other
side of the box.
I step closer and see Mr McPickles curled up, sleeping on
Dad's slippers.
"He likes 'em, almost as much as my inventions."
"Hello, big guy," I say, chucking his ears. He opens one eye
and unceremoniously drifts back into dreamland. "If no one claims
him, I'll get him shots and have him fixed. Then I'll find a good
home for him."
Dad shakes his head and breathes out, "No, no, no," without
using his vocal chords. "You're going to have to wait on the
neutering. The vet says Mr McPickles is only four months old."
"No way, Dad! You can see for yourself that he's fully
grown."
"This one's going to be a real strapper. Look at the size of
his head. Give him a few more months and Sheeka is going to be
mending her ways or licking her wounds." He smiles with a glint in
his eyes.
I have to smile too, because I think Mr McPickles has found
a home for himself. Right in Dad's heart.
Dad turns back to his box and hums to himself like he never
heard me tell him supper's ready. For as long as I can remember,
it's been a standing rule that when Mom says supper's ready, we
have fifteen minutes lead time to get into the kitchen. After that, she
turns into a wrathful deity and descends on us.
Just enough time to give Lulie a shout.
"We saw the brute trying to bend you into the shape of his
bumper," she says. "Skip the chatter 'bout the Duke. I know you're
a cop, or at least you will be once you pass the physical." Geez, is
there anyone Fitz hasn't told? "I take it you managed to ditch the
bastard?"

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"Temporarily," I say, concealing my annoyance with Fitz and


his big mouth. "I thought you were going to ride roughshod over my
hide for stealing your Duke."
"The only thing ticking me off right now is how you're
stripping me down to a stereotype. Don't get me wrong, I don't like
anyone messing with my bikes, but I ride 'em, I don't build shrines
to 'em. Just don't steal my man, no how, no way."
"Want me to deliver the Duke now or tomorrow when I come
for my lesson?"
"Hold onto your hat till tomorrow."
"Come on, Mr McPickles," Dad says quietly in the
background, "it's time to go inside." The kitten's ears perk up, he
uncurls and bounces to life.
As I hang up, Mr McPickles rubs up against me and purrs his
approval.
"We should get inside the house and rescue your friend,"
Dad says, picking up Mr McPickles. "Your mother's probably
lynched him by now."
Nice thought while it lasted.
Entering the spacious country kitchen, we exchange
bewildered looks. Mom has changed out of her jeans and ratty
T-shirt into a gown that would look just right at the opera. Preferably
on-stage. She's rubbing shoulders with Nevar at the table-style
island in the center of the room. They chat away, thick as thieves,
while she washes lettuce, and he sharpens a knife with the tip
conveniently arcing in her direction.

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CHAPTER 7

What?! I leave Nevar alone with my mother for fifteen minutes, and
he's already got her at knife point. He gives me a creepy smile, puts
down the knife sharpener and slices through a red pepper in one
fell swoop, like he's doing an infomercial for cutthroats.
"I was about to go outside and get you," she says to Dad
and I with mild reproach. She pats the spiffy, reborn bun at the
nape of her neck and turns her attention back to Nevar. "I think
we're ready to top it up with the lettuce," she says to him with a look
I know only too well. It's a look of satisfaction tinged with pride, and
anticipation tinged with impatience. And it comes over her
whenever she sees a sign, however imaginary, that I've moved
closer to matrimony. It means that when she looks at him she can
see the faces of her grandchildren. She's always said that it doesn't
matter what color they are. Now when she looks at him, she has a
bouquet of colors to choose from.
Wallowing in the undeserved attention, Nevar tears lettuce
leaves into a bowl.
"Marvelous. A man with the sense to tear lettuce instead of
cutting it," Mom says, looking up at him in wonderment. Then,
giving me a jaundiced look, she says, "And Rane, when you're
washing up, please change out of that motorcycle moll costume.
You won't be riding anything around inside here."
Nevar doesn't speak. His eyes say everything for him. With
his gaze peeled on me, I undo the zippers and shed my leather
skin.
Dad whispers in my ear, "Now what, Sherlock?"
"We feed him, then we take him out with the trash," I say out
of the side of my mouth.
"If he's going to be sitting at my supper table, mind telling me
his name?"
Nevar puts the knife down, too full of himself to bother
concealing that he was eavesdropping. He walks around the island
and holds out his right hand to Dad. "I'm Stefan," he says, while I
mutter, "This is Mr Nevar."
"The trial lawyer?" Dad says, shaking Nevar's hand. "I
wouldn't have known it with those shiners you've--"
"Your very own daughter gave him those," Mom pipes up.
The three of them eye me, all with different expressions that
add up to the same thing.

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"She mistook me for someone else," Nevar says, obviously


loving how the bruises make me look hideous and him look like an
angel.
"Rane, honestly," Mom says with an exasperated look that
melts as she shifts her gaze to him.
"I see," Dad says, smiling at Nevar.
"Not as well as I did when I gave him those," I say, my voice
hoarse from restraint. The easy charm with which Nevar is
insinuating himself into my life is twisting my stomach into knots.
"Aye, aye, aye," Mom says, looking singed by the sparks
flying. "When you dismantled that fortress you built in the backyard
for your friends from the Sombrero galaxy, I thought that was the
end of your far out trips. But Rane, honestly, the way you act
anyone'd think you haven't found your way back home."
While she mollycoddles Nevar's amusement, I say, moving
towards him, "Nevar, how would you like to--"
Dad steps between us. "Mr McPickles needs his antibiotics,"
he says quietly. The kitten climbs around his shoulders and starts
munching on Dad's hair.
"As long as you don't give him anymore canned tuna," Mom
says, stepping back to the cupboard containing the tuna and
guarding it. "It's much too rich for a kitten. I don't want him throwing
up on my sofa again."
Wearing Mr McPickles like a hungry coonskin hat, Dad
reaches around her and takes a can of tuna out of the cupboard.

"Is Mr McPickles the cat that scales your apartment building


and makes death-defying leaps onto your balcony?" Nevar asks as
we walk to his Prius after supper.
"Why do you want to know?"
"I don't," he says, holding the passenger door open for me.
"Just making conversation."

"You said you would drop me off at the motorcycle park to


pick up the Audi, without any detours, delays, subterfuge or
whining. And I never said I was going to talk to you along the way,
so shut up."
Smiling like the fiend he is, he waves at my parents as they
stand at the front door, each holding a cat in one arm and waving
back with the other.
"You can cut the act, you've already seduced them."
"Why shouldn't I smile? Your mother told you to bring me
along for Sunday dinner."
"Yes, well, I wasn't the child who did as she was told. My
brother filled that role." I wave and get into the car.

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"Is that why he's in Brazil, and you're still here?" he asks,
getting into the driver's seat.
"Shut up, Nevar."
Surprisingly, he does just that, but once he turns off
Brittanski and we're alone together, the mood changes. I'm sitting in
the same place Kenny was. Equally as willing. But one of us is old
enough to know better.
"What's your connection with vice?" I ask with a casualness
so forced it betrays me.
"How do you propose I answer your question without
talking?"
"Fruk, why do I bother? You're not capable of saying more
than two words without drowning them in subterfuge."
"Try me."
"You're dreaming. I'll try almost anything before I'll try you.
Why are you having me watched?"
"I'm not." His voice is relaxed, unbothered.
"Okay then, why are you having my place watched by a vice
cop?"
"I'm not."
"Why did you trash my place?"
"I didn't."
"Why is the camera the Hikers had up on the mountain so
important?"
"It's not."
"Why are you pretending you don't have the painting you
stole from me?"
"I'm not," we say together from the opposite sides of reality.
He punctuates his words with an up note, while I punctuate mine
with a gagging sound.
Neither of us says anything for the longest time, until the
silence builds to a nerve-wracking intensity that fills the car, the
night, the world.
With him.
"What have you done with Kenny?" I blurt out after censoring
my reasons for caution.
He throws me a startled look and veers onto the side of the
road. Instead of correcting for his error, however, he compounds it
by cutting the lights then rolling to a stop. We're about a block away
from the entrance to the motorcycle park. In the dark, away from
traffic and people.
Uh-oh.
"You start anything, Snow White, I'll finish it." I ready my
body to slash him with a knifehand. Right across his nose.
"You think I stopped here to neck with you? Forasmuch as
I'd like to oblige…Ask me again later."

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I relax my hands, but my chest tightens. "Must you reduce


everything to sex?"
"Only trying to keep up with you." His half-laughing voice
gives way to dismay as he adds, "I saw a light up there through the
trees. The rock hopper trying to kill you may be waiting for you."
So the spider says to the fly. That's what I get for trusting
someone who isn't a used car salesman.
"I'll check it out," Nevar says, getting out of the car. "You
stay here."
You're dreaming, Snow White.
I'm out of the car in a shot.
The chilling night air is still, expectant. With the help of a
streetlight further down the road, I see the shadow of his black
trench coat stretch into the park. I veer off the road and scale a
chain-link fence about twenty feet from the Audi.
It's still there where I parked it, alone and undisturbed.
As I steal to the car, a cold sweat creeps up my spine,
making my hair stand on end. It's just too damned quiet. Where's
Nevar? I start the car with the remote and reach for the door
handle. Suddenly, a motorbike roars at me from the rear, its
headlight blinding me. I jump onto the car hood and roll onto the
other side.
The bike howls into a turn for a repeat performance.
Obscured in black, both the rider and bike are difficult to see. But
I've caught the one detail that matters: It's the Hiker. He has a
deadly sureness to his actions that is unmistakable. Does the Grim
Reaper ever miss a cue?
He points something at me.
Holy shit, it's a gun!
I kill the Audi's ignition because I don't have time to get into
the car. And if I don't get away from it, the Hiker's going to make it
look like a Picasso painting. I drop to the ground and belly walk
under the car to the other side. I scramble to my feet in time to give
the Hiker a psycho's dream shot at mowing me down. I dart to the
side and ready myself to kick him over, but Nevar appears out of
nowhere and does it for me. The bike bucks, throwing the rider.
Nevar's coat catches onto the bar and yanks him violently. But he
doesn't get thrown into the crash because his coat splits down the
back, leaving him intact but with only half a coat.
I charge at the Hiker. Unmoving and face down on the
ground, he looks about as innocent as a bomb about to go off. "Get
up, you bag of shit!" He responds by pretending not to be
responding. I kick him over onto his back. "Listen, you--"
Nevar bear hugs me from behind. "We've got company," he
breathes into my ear.

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Fruk, another bike is heading for us. No lights and a purr


instead of a roar. Suddenly, the lights flash on and the bike rages at
us. We bolt for the hill. The biker traverses the hill and gains on us
as we climb straight up, but at least Nevar is between me and the
bike. At the top I crouch down. Breathless. "Nevar, get down!" I
grab his coat, and he falls into place beside me.
"As soon as he circles around to face us, start running down
right here," I say and point to the vertical trail that leads to the
swamp below.
"Now I get you," he says. "Pax." He kisses the top of my
head then jumps up.
If all psychos were this maddening, they wouldn't live long
enough to kill anyone.
I spring up as the bike rears at the crest before plunging
down at me. I jump aside and the bike careens past me. Then I kick
its rear down into the murky abyss.
"Nevar! Flying garbage!"
Splash!
Nevar catches me as I fly down off the hill.
I don't linger in his arms. "Who is the creep?" I ask.
"Surely you've figured out that much by now?"
We're equidistant between the swamp creature and the car. I
go for the creep making weird sounds in the mud.
"Krudmin's on the other side of the car," Nevar says,
grasping my arm. "You have to get it to safety before he--"
"You're right." Not really. I just said that to shut him up long
enough to allow me to get a crowbar or some other weapon from
the trunk.
His grip weakens in proportion to the satisfaction he gets
from having his way with me. Men. What a world this would be if
their brains were even half as big as their egos.
"That's better," he says in a mushy voice.
Yeah sure.
I head for the car with Snow White treading softly by my
side. Why isn't the Hiker greeting us with his usual lust for blood?
The tension in my muscles grips my whole body. Nevar stops
abruptly, as if he's so much in tune with my mind and body that he's
riding my thoughts to their destination. We spin around. And as we
bolt for the swamp, a blast pops our ears and jolts us off our feet.
We dive into the mud, with hot white light licking our backs. The
explosive light seers sharp, painful images of my parents into my
head.
I land on the biker.
"Get off me, you stupid bitch!" the biker yells in my ear. "I
think my leg's busted."
"Where?" I ask, getting up.

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"Here," he sits up and points to his shin.


"Well, let's see what we can do about that." I kick the side of
his knee, blowing out his kneecap. "You don't know how to count,
dumbass. It's broken in two places."
Howling in pain, he grabs for my ankle.
I stomp on his wrist.
With a sudden and sure push on the back of my knee and
the merest touch of his hand on my shoulder, Nevar pushes me
into the mud. "Hasn't anyone ever told you that you don't kick a
man when he's down?" he says while I gasp and struggle to get up.
Finally upright, I wheel around, choking on mud and feeling
like the flames that burst into life and took the Audi with them when
they died. Nevar faces me without shirking my wrath then heads for
the exit.
I glance at the biker, with the idea of tearing off his helmet to
see who or what's under there, but he's slumped into the mud.
Totally out of it. The police'll find me here before I'll find out
anything from this guy. I hoof it to catch Nevar before he drives
away without me. He comes into view beside the Prius. I walk
around to the passenger side while he shakes mud out of his hair.
Then he looks over the roof at me and says, "Take your clothes
off."
"Open this door, it's freezing out here!"
"You're not getting into my car like that. Unless you want to
clean up the mess afterwards."
I stare at him, unsure whether he's serious or just plain
seriously mad.
"So the mud on my clothes is going to soil your car, but
yours isn't? Like your shit doesn't st--" His mud-drenched pants
splat against my face. I pull them off, and one of his socks lands on
my face. I duck, unzip my jacket, creep around the back of the car
and catch him peering over the roof, shirt in hand ready to strike.
He's down to his oh-so brief underwear. If ever there was an
inducement to smear his perfect body. I chuck my filthy jacket.
His mouth drops open, first in surprise, then in disgust.
"I knew you couldn't take your own medicine," I taunt,
dropping my jeans.
"That's medicine," he says, pointing at my legs. "This isn't."
He picks up my jacket and throws it back at me.
He walks around me, opens the car and hands me a plastic
shopping bag. "To wrap up your hair." Then he throws me a blanket
about the right size to cover my butt.
Grumbling and mumbling, I get into the car with my back to
him.
"You needn't be prudish on my account," he says, getting
into the car.

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"As if you need eyes to see any part of me. Dream on, Snow
White." The blanket is so small, it's intent upon making his dreams
come true.
"Where to first?" he asks after he's through chuckling over
my plastic-wrapped hair.
"What do you mean first?" He smugly ignores my question
"Listen, Nevar, you drop me off at my parents', and that's that."
What am I saying?! The psycho Hiker just blew up their wheels.
"Uh, then you can drop me off at my friend's."
"Fine. Then we'll get the painting," he says with nauseating
cheerfulness.
The wild, wicked and outrageously satisfying things I could
do with my hands about now! But no, I have to hold the blanket to
keep it from riding up.

"Someone's still up," he remarks at the lights shining from


the windows at my parents' home.
Damn. Mom always thinks I'm up to something dirty, but this
is one time she's not going to be all that pleased about being right. I
step past him to get his eyes off the parts not covered by the
blanket, but my cheeks are sticking out enough at the back to give
him an eyeful.
Screw that.
I change back into my jeans and blouse. Without the
underwear. My skin prickles, crawls, shrinks then freezes.
Unwrapping the plastic bag, I find the mud has set my hair in place.
Not exactly a beauty treatment. More like opening a can of frozen
worms. I walk to the front door, feeling like Medusa in an ice pack.
I point at Nevar, who's donned his shirt and pants. He's too
amused to take his eyes off me. "Not a word, Nevar. Not one
damned word." I stop just before the door. "Listen, the kitchen light
at the back is off. Stay here. I'll sneak upstairs to--"
The front door opens, throwing an unwelcome spotlight on
us.
"What on earth?!" Mom says, her gaze swinging wildly
between Nevar and me until it rivets on him. "You poor man. She's
turning you into one of her creatures from Sombrero."
This from a woman who's wearing Gruffie the Wonder Bear
slippers, a purple and orange fuzzy kaftan and enough PVC piping
in her hair to service an entire bathroom.
She looks back over her shoulder. "Terence, your daughter
is back without your car." I step into the house, and she tilts back
her head and peers at me through her bifocals like she's holding up
a magnifying glass to me. "At least I think it's your daughter."
Nevar bumps into me from behind because I stop short in
the foyer. I'm in enough of a mess already without having her

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declare war on me for sullying her domain. Well, it's not completely
hers. Dad gets to enjoy the plaid, plain and striped parts of the
room, while she gets to savor the floral and chintz parts all by
herself. If you don't count Sheeka, who's crouched on the yellow
rose sofa, ready to pounce. The uppity feline sneers at Dad as he
slouches contentedly in his navy plaid chair, with his legs stretched
out on the ottoman, and Mr McPickles nesting in his hair. Both of
them peer at me over the top of the book Dad's holding. The kitten
smiles, but alarm weighs down the whole of Dad's face. He sits up.
"Were you in an accident?'
"Not quite. I'm okay, as you see." His hair tells the tale of his
disbelief. It's standing at wit's end. "I'm okay. Really. But your car is
toast," I say with enough discomfort to cause my voice to quaver.
"This is all that's left, I'm afraid." I throw him the remote and glance
back at Nevar to cue him we're leaving. His mud-caked bruises give
me the willies, but fruk if they don't do him justice. I stifle a laugh.
Catching my snicker, Mom says in a huff, "So you think this
is some kind of joke. My Rudy Valee compilation was in that car. I'll
have you know it's not replaceable."
"Neither is your daughter," Dad says.
She shakes a finger at him. "I blame you for this, Terence.
You and your big ideas about having her experience the world
before settling down. Look at your handiwork. Hope you're proud of
yourself."
"I am," Dad says, and it doesn't sound like he's just saying it
to spite her. "We don't have another car to spare, but we'd like to
help in any way we can to get Kenny Hironaka back safely."
"Am I wearing a sign or something?" I ask.
"No," Dad says. "I know you wouldn't go through this much
trouble for anything less. It must be particularly difficult for you,
Stefan." He shakes his head in sympathy.
Nevar laps it up then blanks out his face as I glare at him.
"Personally, Rane, I think you're doing all this to get the
attention of a certain young man," Mom says. "Not very clever of
you, my dear. You've already got his attention."
We all stare at Nevar, but the only one in the room who can
think of something to smile about is Mr McPickles. Yet I get the
feeling that Nevar is smiling inside. He's giving me that secret look
it seems only I can see.
"Well, we're off," I say, nudging Nevar backwards to the
door. His body moves with my hands instead of resisting. I sure
don't trust how obliging he's being.
"At least clean yourselves up first," Mom commands.
"I have an old coat you could wear," Dad says, getting up.
"Never mind," Mom says, motioning him to sit back down.
He walks over to us with Mr McPickles holding up the rear. "I'll get

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her something with a hood. Honestly, Terence, the way you act
you'd think you're the only one allowed to be proud of our
daughter." Turning to go upstairs, she grumbles, "My only daughter.
When will she ever grow up and learn that life isn't about having
fun?" Shaking her head, she goes up the stairs. "I was never even
remotely that pigheaded or foolish when I was that age."
Dad clears his throat without saying anything, and suddenly
the air is clear.

Cleaned up a little, but not refreshed at all, I get out of the


Prius outside Chanlee's and smile unabashedly as I tell Nevar to
clear off.
He looks back at me with a smile devoid of anything worth
receiving. "You're stuck with me until I get what I came for," he
says.
With him dogging my steps, I head for the shung chi
entrance at the back of the house. "You're wasting your time,
Nevar. My friend isn't going to fall for your puke-nice routine the
way my parents did. You'll be lucky if she doesn't pull out her gun
and shoot you." If I don't barge in while she's making out with
Bruno. Then it'll be me she shoots.
I step inside with him so close behind that it's difficult to tell
where I end and he begins. Then I turn around, push him back
outside and shut the door on him.
"Who's out there?" Chanlee asks.
"No one." I walk past her to the kitchen.
She opens the door, closes it and returns. Without him.
Trying to make myself comfortable in a straight-backed
chair, I say wearily, "I'd like to call it a day, but I promised Dan I'd
clear out my things." I rest my head in my hands. One of my shock
locks plops down on my face. I just let it hang there.
She sits down across from me, her back as straight and stiff
as the chair. "I know you're going through a lot right now. Why the
hell do you think I gave you my cell?"
"You're right," I sigh and rub my eyes. "It's just that every
time I thought of calling you, I…." I lift my head and wave away the
thought. "Screw that. I'd like to see you dwell on niceties when
you're being chased through hell by a psycho who can't think of
anything better to do with his life than take yours."
Her brittle expression shatters, revealing the Chanlee I know
and love. "I thought you were out dirt biking with Fitz." She gets up
and rests her arm on my back.
"I wish. I've been with Nevar. Fruk, I can't believe how much
it takes to get him to accept that he's not wanted."
"Ah, that explains this terry robe you're wearing." She rubs
the downy fabric, and I feel like the genie in the bottle, wishing I

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could just break free. "And why you look like you've been thrown for
a loop. At least a hundred times."
"Being with Nevar doesn't explain a thing."
"Uh-huh." She squeezes my shoulder and walks into the
living room.
"I don't know whether it's him or me, but the closer I get to
him, the harder he is to read. Like, I know he's mixed up in Kenny's
kidnapping, but I'll be damned if I can make any real connection
between him and the kid. Except Kenny was in his car. Laughing."
Uh-oh, she's going to the front door. I spring up off the chair and my
body thanks me. "You're not going to open that door?!" She grasps
the knob. "You open that door, and shar chi will steal into this
house and poison all your thoughts, dreams and desires."
"You know I don't believe in that stuff unless it works for me."
She opens the door.
Nevar leans against the jamb like he doesn't think that
Chanlee knows how to use a gun. And she sighs like he's the
purveyor of tian chi, the energy of heaven.
"Come on in, Mr Nevar," she says with a grand sweep of her
hand.
He steps inside, and I charge at him. "Not so fast, Nevar."
Rubbing noses with him, I push him back outside.
"Well, well, if it isn't Bambi," he says like he's getting a kick
out of rubbing me the wrong way. He's being so accommodating,
that he's resting his hands on my waist to help me push into him.
There's no way I'm going to be able to shake this guy until I
show him that someone trashed my apartment and stole the
painting. Not the real one, for sure, but he doesn't know that.
Or does he?
"Chanlee, if I'm not back in an hour, call the police." I walk
backwards with him breathing down my neck.
"She is the police," he says, his breath warming my neck.
"Give the man a prize, and give me a couple of minutes. I'm
going with you," she says. "I'll take care of the Watcher."
I shake my head. "Don't sweat it, Chanlee. Just grab me my
cell and stay--"
"We'll wait for you in the car, Chanlee," he says.
"That pouty mouth of yours is way too big for the size of your
brain. But it's going to get even fatter if you don't shut up and stop
interfering in my life," I say.
"Are you always this territorial?"
We get into the car in silence. Then he spoils it by adding,
"Your tongue catches fire every time someone close to you gives
me attention. I was just trying to be kind to your friend. You should
try it sometime."

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"Spare me the bullshit, Nevar. You weren't trying to do


anything, you were undercutting me by negating my decision to
leave without her. This is about power, about how you don't feel
secure unless you're in total control, so you stoop to stealing my
power. Big man that you are."
"This is about power. Absolutely. With you, everything has to
be your show or no show. She just wants to help."
"You're not in court now, Nevar. So stop trying to pass off
your guesses as some kind of higher reality. She wants to come
along to help, all right. Help herself to my neighbor while she
betrays her commitment to her fiancé."
"A neighbor who's your show?"
"So what if he is?"
"Because so far all I've heard you talking about is what you
want. You're trying to make your feelings drive her decisions."
Ouch, ouch, ouch! He keeps hitting raw nerves, the ones
that combust on touch. He's turned with his back against the door,
his luminous eyes alert and calculating, like he's eager for a fight.
Bully for him, because that's not what he's going to get. That is,
unless the lid I've clamped down on my feelings explodes off.
"Enough of your bullshit, Nevar. Why are we in this car
together?"
He shifts his weight, starts to speak then hides his thoughts
in silence, all the while looking like someone just lit a fire under him.
"I'm after the truth," I go on. "What are you after? Money?
Sex? Kicks? Or is everything about power with you?"
"In truth, all of the above," he says shamelessly. He never
has to worry about putting his conscience to rest. He's never
awakened it.
His answer should just about cover all the bases. Like what
else is left? Yet, put all together, they don't explain why he's in the
same car with me. The only overlap in our lives is the Hiker. Nevar
thinks I saw something on Mt. Rundle that threatens him.
Somehow. Enough to kill Kenny?
"Listen, Nevar. There's something about me you should
know. The truth comes to me the way money comes to some
people, or fame does to others. There are lucky devils in this world
who never have to pray for a date or wonder if they'll ever be loved.
Because the people they dream about come to them. That's how it
is with me and the truth. Whether I like it or not, it comes to me,
sometimes packing a fruking wallop."
"That's because you don't turn your back on it. And it never
leaves you because you're not too scared to do something about
it."

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"That's not the point. You and I are opposing forces that
cancel each other out. Because while I'm trying to get at the truth,
you're trying to create the truth with lies."
He leans forward conspiratorially. "How do you know that's
what I'm doing?"
"Because I'm in this car with you. If you acted on your true
thoughts and feelings, I wouldn't be here now. I'd be dead."
He laughs, which surprises me because I expected him to
lie. "Not necessarily. The truth I'm creating might need you to be
alive and well." He leans in for an extreme close-up. I jerk my head
back, and it bounces off the door window. Shit, I could use one of
Chanlee's rigid chairs. This seat is too soft, giving and curvaceous.
No matter which way I squirm I can't get comfortable.
"In view of the fact that--" He straightens up abruptly.
"Chanlee's here."
She opens the door before I have time to shift my weight
forward. I fall back and have to grab onto the dashboard to keep
from cracking my head on the sidewalk. Nevar clenches the front of
my robe and tries to pull me back up. But I twist out of his grip and
scramble to my feet on the sidewalk beside Chanlee, who's doing a
lousy job of trying to suppress her laughter.
"Did up my face. Just in case," she whispers and hands me
my cell.
"So I take it you and Bruno are off again?"
"About as much as you and Fitz are." She slides her gaze in
Nevar's direction, then adds, "But one man never has been enough
for you."
There's a lot I could say to that, but nothing I want Nevar to
hear, so I get into the back of the car in silence.
He smiles at her and pats the seat I vacated. "Rane hasn't
figured out how to be a backseat driver from up here."
While they snicker and talk without saying anything, I get on
my cell to Fitz.
"It's about time," Fitz says without giving the phone a chance
to complete the first ring. "Where are you, sugar? I'll come and get
you."
Hearing his voice amplifies my guilt. Not only for neglecting
his feelings, but for neglecting my own. I've been so busy, I haven't
had time for love. Only hate. I'm so consumed with what I'm
pursuing that my life is emptying out fast, like the bottom has fallen
out of it, and I'm suspended in that eternal moment between
ascending and falling. Or maybe this is what it feels like to be
sucked into the center of a vortex. Anyway I look at it, my life is
making about as much sense as any life without love.
"Uh, I'm with Chanlee. We're on our way to the Doré to pick
up my things." In the rearview mirror, I catch Nevar staring at me

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like he's watching a liar, a real pro, in action. I slouch down and turn
my face into the corner away from him.
"What things?" Fitz asks. "Did you--"
"You still there? My phone's cutting out," I say. There's
nothing wrong with the phone, but that lie doesn't count because it's
not really me who's creating it. Nevar is. If he weren't in the car, I'd
be able to speak freely to the man I love.
"I'll meet you at your pad," Fitz says.
I sit up. Straight as an arrow. "No! My place was trashed,
and--"
"Your voice keeps fading out. Did you say your place was
trashed?"
"A tornado would have done a less thorough job."
"You're talking like…Is the guy who did it in the car with you
now?"
"Hope not," I say, slinking back down.
"Who is h--"
Pretending not to hear him, I barge in, "If I could float
through the air on my dreams, I'd be landing on your lap. Or parts
there abouts. How many lifetimes ago was it that we fell asleep in
each other's arms? Hell, Fitz, I feel like I'm stuck in a storm on the
far side of hell, searching for something so elusive I'm not sure I'll
be able to recognize it when I see it."
"What did you say?"
"Never mind. I'll give you a call first thing tomorrow."
"Promise?"
I kiss the phone.
"Keep your helmet on, baby," he says in such a sexy voice
that I feel Cupid pricking me all over.
Closing down the cell, I'm struck by the silence around me.
Not a titter or a peep out of anyone. They're too busy being a rapt
audience, and I'm too busy missing someone. Along with the rest of
my life.

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CHAPTER 8

Chanlee and I get out of Nevar's car short of the Doré Parc to pay
the Watcher a surprise visit. If all goes well, we'll pin him down
while he's distracted by Nevar driving into my parking stall. It's time
Hulladin explained why an off-duty cop is spending his vacation
worshipping the Doré's garbage bin. Chanlee approaches him from
one end of the alley, while I close in on him from the other end. We
stay connected through our cells. Anticipation builds as I move with
stealth from shadow to shadow. A chinook arch is pushing away
the veil of clouds, leaving a trail of warm air in its wake. In this
star-kissed night any shadow could be lethal. Sliding into the
shadow of a fir tree, I get a good view of the garbage bin basking in
the lamplight.
Except there is no Watcher.
No Chanlee or Nevar, either. He's probably having coffee
with the Watcher.
"I can't see him," I whisper into the phone. Silence.
"Chanlee?" Silence. Her cell's still on, but she's not responding.
What the hell?
A crunching sound coming from behind the bin breaks the
silence. My heart skips a couple of beats then races to beat hell. I
drop to the ground to peer under the bin. A pair of shoes point in
the direction of my apartment. I glance up at my balcony. A white
light no more than a pinprick flashes through the wrought-iron
railing. So that's where Nevar is?!
I glance back under the bin. The shoes are gone. My eyes
swing from shadow to shadow. I can't see anything amiss, so I
know my eyes are lying. I lift myself up into a crouching position
and try to sense which way the wind is going to blow.
Without warning, a hand grabs my hair from behind and the
cold tip of a knife jabs the side of my neck. Nevar?! Suddenly, high
beam headlights blind us. The knife jerks away from my neck. I
glance over my shoulder. It's the Hiker. Fruk, who appointed him
the Grim Reaper? I grab his hand and yank it down. He resists
forcefully, and I let go quickly then kick sideways at his groin. He
crashes backward, doubles up and writhes, still clenching the knife.
I grab his wrist and lock down on his shoulder, fitting the back of his
neck snugly around the instep of my boot.
He releases the knife.

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Swooping it up, I say, "You wish I was dead, now here's a


wish for you." I part the hair on the back of his head with the knife.
My hands tremble with anticipation of shipping him to hell, but he's
no damned good to me there. The headlights edge closer and
closer, like the driver's getting his kicks by threatening to run me
over in slow motion. Where the hell is Chanlee? She's too swift to
let the Watcher catch her. Is that him in the car? Or is it Snow
White?
Something touches my shoulder. The Grim Reaper's horse?
No, this attacker has a hand. I drive my free elbow back into his
solar plexus. No contact. I turn around and stare in surprise at
Chanlee. Suddenly a limb of the fir tree beside my head snaps and
falls at our feet. And just as suddenly we're in the dark again.
"Get down!" Nevar yells from behind me.
Fruk! He just took a shot at us.
Chanlee and I drop to the ground, while the Hiker springs up
and bolts. I'm facing away from Nevar, so I curl up into a fetal
position to rotate myself 180º. He's crouched down beside his
Prius. At least I think he's crouched. He's no more than a shadow.
Chanlee's wasting her time looking everywhere but at me. I
nudge her, point at the knife then at Nevar.
"If you could get your mind off him for a measly second,
you'd know that the shot came from over there," she says, jabbing
the air repeatedly in the direction of my apartment.
"Go around to the front," Nevar says.
"I'll go," she says and crawls backward to a power pole.
"And for God's sake, stay on your cell this time," I chide,
bypassing my cell. I stab the knife into the ground under the tree.
Nevar managed to get the letter opener from me, but he's not going
to disarm me this time.
"I thought I saw Hulladin skulking around the Dumpster. I
couldn't very well announce my presence," Chanlee's voice says
over the cell.
"Oh, so now that you have nothing to say, you've found your
voice," I say. Damn, the knife won't go in all the way. The soil's too
compact.
Nevar leaps from the car to the tree, lays down beside me
and presses the side of his head into my earpiece. His dirty,
bruised face is revolting this close, but it suits the mood and the
scant light.
"Do you mind?" I say, pushing him away and shifting myself
forward a little so he won't see the knife behind my head. He
springs back into place tight against me.
"What are you griping about now?" Chanlee says like she's
gritting her teeth.
"Only me," he says.

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His warm breath touches my lips on the other side of the


mike.
"Sure took your time getting here," I tell him.
"You said to give you fifteen minutes, not ten or eleven or--"
I slap a hand over his mouth. He doesn't bother to take my
hand away, so I have to do it myself.
"Cut out the bickering, kids," Chanlee says. "The gun
pointing at you doesn't care who's right."
"There may be more than one of them, Chanlee," he says.
"Watch your back."
"Thanks, I will," she says and lapses into a silence followed
by a soft thud. "There. I'm over the fence. I can see the entrance of
the Doré…Someone's coming out. A woman. Forget it, she's just
puttering along to her car. If she's a flight risk, I'll eat that
unbelievably ugly hat she's wearing. Wonder if she'll mind if I bum a
swig of her cola. Just kidding…No one else in sight. Freeeeaakkk! I
shouldn't have let her see me. She flashed a light in my eyes. Rats!
She's vanished."
"We'll head her off," I say, jumping to my feet. Nevar comes
with me. Or is he lifting me? Pretending to trip, I step down hard
and press the knife handle into the ground with my heel.
"Which way, Chanlee?" he asks as we run to the car like our
bodies don't know they're separate.
"East. She's wearing a red overcoat," she huffs.
He backs the car up while I'm still getting in.
"This is a lousy idea," I say.
"I have to turn it around."
"Not that. In your hands, this isn't a car, it's a penile
weapon."
"Not to worry, it's not you I'm chasing." He flashes me that
secret look. "Not at this precise moment."
The car fish spins as he pulls out of the turn. My neck is
craned back and my brake foot is trying to go through the floor.
With the back wheels spinning in the air, we fly out of the alley.
Omigod, Chanlee's standing in the middle of the road. Her back is
to us, and she's too close to dodge out of the way.
"Chanleeeeeee!" I scream into the phone as he swerves by
her and brings the Prius to a sudden death halt.
She spins around and gapes at us. "I've lost her," she says,
looking pissed off rather than shaken. She runs over to Nevar's side
of the car like she knew all along he wouldn't waste her. "Did you
see her?"
"No," he says. "No one running amok with a cola. How old
would you say she is?"

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"About 300, give or take a day, but I didn't get to see much
of her face because of the hat," she says, leaning down close
enough to suck face with him.
"Then what is it about her that leads you to believe she's
old?" he asks like he's getting a rush out of breathing the words
down her throat.
"The way she moved," she says all breathy. "She rocked her
hips unevenly, like she was arthritic."
"And the hat?" he asks.
"Wide brimmed with the sides flopped down like dog ears,
and the front tacked up with a…something that looked an awful lot
like a prairie oyster. It was--"
"Never mind her, Someone flashed a light in my apartment,"
I say, miffed at their chatter.
"I thought I saw something too," she says, "but know what? I
think it was just a reflection from one of the alley lights."
"Like hell," I say. "I left the curtains closed to hide the mess.
The morons forgot to close them this time after they were through
with their psycho games."
"Or they left them open deliberately," Nevar suggests.
"How are the jerks getting into my apartment so willy-nilly?
Like how are they getting past everyone, including the super and
Dan? That's what I'd like to know."
"Speaking of the devil, guess who just pulled up?" she says.
The eagerness spilling out of her voice advertises that lust has
arrived. All she wants to do is scratch an itch. But Dan's a good
guy. The kind of guy I'd marry and have kids with if I--screw that.
He's old enough to vote. So is Bruno.
I shake my head and catch Nevar staring at me like we're
running with the same fugitive thought. Not bloody likely, though,
because at the sight of Dan, his face and black eyes lit up with
more than curiosity.
Getting out of the car I say, "Home kind of early for a
Saturday night, aren't you Dan?"
"At the crack of dawn I'm driving to the hot springs with
Myrtle's folks," he says, taking a gym bag out of the back of his
SUV. "You look like you lost another round with the Watcher."
Nevar makes straight tracks for the Doré, while Chanlee and
I wait for Dan. She's breathing so hard and fast I'd swear she was
in the throes of a panic attack if I wasn't getting scorched by the
fire.
"Need my help?" Dan offers as we catch up with Nevar at
the entrance.
Chanlee gives him a shameless yes; Nevar gives him an
emphatic no and I say, "Depends on how many rounds we have to
contend with tonight." I can barely see him, because Nevar has

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conveniently planted his carcass between us. Spare me the


know-it-all idiots of the world. Mind you, maybe it's better if Dan
doesn't see me. I look like Medusa after she died and went to hell. I
don't know why, but it seems that Dan always gets to see me at my
worst. One of us, at least, deserves better.
"Annnnddd," I groan as I try shoving Nevar out of the way.
"It'd be great if I could get my things from your place."
"My pleasure," he replies.
"You're a real gem, Dan," I say. "Okay, you and I get my
things, while Chanlee and him get cracking on my apartment."
Chanlee folds her arms. "I'll get your things," she says and
gives me a look that says she's not prepared to negotiate.
Nevar shakes his head. "No, I'll get your things," he insists.
"And you and Chanlee tackle the apartment." Standing on my toes,
I butt heads with him. "Listen, Nevar. You're not--"
"Stefan, have you met Dan?" Chanlee asks with a strained
sweetness that nevertheless manages to cut through the tension.
"I don't believe we have," Dan says, holding out his hand.
Nevar charges ahead to the elevator, turns to face us then
stands with his arms at his sides like he's waiting for the precise
moment to draw his guns.
Being the good-natured guy that he is, Dan takes the rebuff
in his stride and winks at me. Chanlee eyes me like she's praying I'll
get lost. This four-way tug of war is more nerve-wracking than
being in the grips of the Grim Reaper. At least with the Reaper the
message is unambiguous. But damned if I know what bug just got
up Nevar's backside.
"Mind if I make a suggestion?" Dan says rather timidly.
The three of us stare at him, ready to jump down his throat.
"Why don't we all get your things from my place," he
continues, "then come back here and take on your apartment?"
Chanlee and I smile in agreement, while Nevar looks so
edgy and brittle, sure as hell something dire would happen to him if
he tried to smile. He throws me a look, like I should be ashamed of
myself for making him fail in his attempts to reason with a naughty
child.

"You've helped enough, Dan," I say as the four of us huddle


in the elevator taking us up to my apartment after we've hauled my
trunk and things to Chanlee's. "We'll battle our way through the
rubble in my apartment without you."
"Crackajack," he says, "but come up to my flat for a drink
first. You look like you could use a break." He looks at Chanlee.
"I've got cola."
"We'll pass," Nevar says, his tone highhanded and
dismissive.

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The elevator door opens on the fourth. Nevar shoves me out


and snatches Chanlee, who can't tear her gaze off Dan even
though she's in another man's arms.
"Let me know if you need anymore help," Dan says, his eyes
alive with amusement at Nevar's antics.
I forgo wrangling with Nevar about his Tarzan act, because
I'm anxious to see what's in store for me in my apartment. I unlock
the door, and the three of us peek around the doorway. No barrage
of bullets. There's nothing but a disquieting silence in the darkness.
I reach around the jamb and flick on the lights. Chanlee and I gasp,
while Nevar studies our faces to figure out why we're acting like
remembering our own names would be a seriously challenging
task. He looks hopelessly defeated by a lack of clues. After all, the
apartment is perfectly fine. Tidy, clean. Everything in order. My
exercise equipment is assembled and ready to go, just as though
yesterday never happened.
Propelled by the same idea, Chanlee and I shoot forward.
The doorway isn't wide enough for the both of us, so we crash to a
halt then scramble to get past each other, neither of us giving an
inch. Finally, we turn sideways and charge forth, racing from one
thing, one room to the next.
"Fruk!" I exclaim.
"Everything's exactly the way it was!" she says, finishing my
thought.
I plunk down on my racing bike, trying to believe my eyes.
"That's just it. The bastards have it too damned right. I'll bet you
anything that tucked away somewhere in this city there's at least
one hard drive filled with images of my apartment and everything in
it. Including me. I'll also bet that if we look hard enough we'll find
something that looks picture perfect yet isn't quite ri…." My voice
deadens to a quiver. "I felt invaded when I saw all my things had
been trashed. Now I feel violated." My shoulders sag with my
spirits.
Nevar, who had been holding back in the entrance hall,
strides over to the bike and says, his voice low and throaty, "Ride
with it, Rane. Don't let them touch you in that way." The scent of
him is so…so him. It creeps up on me. "You have to keep them
from getting at what you truly value in yourself, your life."
I tilt my head back and meet his gaze. Is that fear shadowing
his dark eyes? And why is his smile halfhearted? Or am I just
seeing myself reflected in his eyes?
"Here's something they didn't get right," Chanlee says,
pointing at my answering machine. We join her by the phone. "It
attracted my attention because the red light's not flashing. See?
The display says you have no messages."

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I press Repeat Messages, and sure enough, all the


messages are gone.
"Something they didn't want you to hear, obviously," she
says thoughtfully.
Nevar shakes his head. "Not something. Most likely
someone."
Chanlee and I eyeball him.
He holds up his palms to stave off our unvoiced accusations.
"Neither the logic nor the evidence supports your conclusion, which
is strictly inferential," he adds. "Simply because you heard at least
one of the messages I left for you on Friday, I did all this?! Believe
me, if I didn't want my voice on your machine, I wouldn't have left
any messages. The people doing this know they made a mistake
by not erasing your old messages. Erasing them this time was their
second mistake, because it draws attention to their first mistake."
"Not necessarily," Chanlee says. "The culprits may have
trashed them because there's nothing on the machine worth
keeping. Most of the messages were from Lena. No offense, Rane,
but she never said anything worth remembering. Unless you need
to be reminded that she wants to talk to you."
"Then why not leave them be?" Nevar asks.
"I agree with him," I say. "I'd buy your argument, Chanlee, if
her messages were the only ones in the machine. No, the psychos
overlooked one of the messages in the first round. They're not
tinkering around here. I mean, they went through the trouble to
selectively erase Fit--" I stop myself from saying Fitz's name. I won't
let him be victimized by my problems. "But there was nothing out of
the ordinary in any of the messages. Was there, Chanlee?" I say,
tossing the attention in her direction.
She holds a finger to her lips and points at the phone.
"You don't really think that'll stop them from finding out
anything they damned well please," I say. "These creeps know
what I'm doing before I do. Ask this one here, if you don't believe
me."
"His name is Stefan," she says and laps up his smile.
I throw my hands up in the air.
Her frown lines iron out as her face lights up. "Wasn't there
one from Professor Mabie-Toogod?" She snaps her fingers. "Yes.
Something about tea on Sunday."
"Good thing you reminded me," I say.
Nevar smiles at her like she just gave him a gift. "Chanlee,"
he says, drawing out her name like he can't stand the thought of
releasing it from his lips. "It was brilliant of you to think of what was
missing instead of focusing on what looks right." He gives her a
half-hug. "If you keep looking, Rane, you'll find something missing.
No matter how small or insignificant it may seem, it'll be important."

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Is he referring to my painting?
He goes on, "They--"
"They, they, they!" I say explosively. How long is he going to
keep his arm around her shoulder, anyway? "Who are they? Who
gives a damn why they erased the fruking messages? The people
who are doing all this are killers. They're crazy. Totally zonked. So
it doesn't make a helluva lot of sense to stand around here talking
about them like they have sane motives for doing anything. What
have I done to them? Nothing. But you both know as well as I do
that they don't intend to stop until they've killed me. And they're
sure as hell not going to do it with any deleted messages."
"Oh but they are," Nevar says with sinister certitude. "They
have every intention of using the erased messages to get away
with murder. Who else besides your mother and the professor
called?"
"Leave her alone," Chanlee says, too mildly to even qualify
as a suggestion.
"Don't, Chanlee!" I say, holding up my hand. "Nevar, why are
you in my apartment?"
"I want to see your painting."
"It's not here," Chanlee blurts out stupidly. She catches my
sharp look and adds, "I haven't seen it. Think it might be in your
closet, Rane?"
I don't bother answering because she wasn't the only one to
catch my sharp look. Shit, shoot, shite. Now he knows it wasn't
stolen.
I pull at my hair and my hands fill with dirt. "That's it. Enough
of this. I'm having a shower."
"Okay," Chanlee says and starts walking arm in arm with
Nevar to the door. She must be blind, deaf and numb because
she's too much under the spell of his easy charm to hear the hiss
behind his words or to feel his sting.
He holds the door open for me.
I shake my head. "I'm staying."
"It's not safe here," he says, walking towards me.
"Tough. I'm staying."
Uh-oh, he's going to fight me on this one. And I do mean
fight. I bolt into the bathroom, lock the door and turn on the shower
to drown him out.
The long, steamy shower washes away the dirt, but the filth
they are trying to smear on my soul remains. Every drop of water
falling on my skin echoes inside me as an unanswered question.
Who are they, and what's their connection with the police? What
was on my answering machine worth killing for? Why bother to put
everything back into place? If there's something important missing,

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as Nevar says, what could it be? What does any of this have to do
with Kenny Hironaka? Is he still alive?
On and on, the water falls, taking the answers with it.
I grab one of my replaced towels and start drying myself.
Who'd ever guess this isn't the same towel that was hanging on the
rack three days ago? It looks the same and feels the same. The
exactness is disturbing somehow. I toss it onto the vanity and the
label catches my eye. I always cut off the labels because they
scratch when they rub against my skin. So here's something the
psychos got wrong. Hardly important, though. But if they got this
meaningless detail wrong, what else have they overlooked? Nevar
said--Where is he, anyway? It's awfully quiet on the other side of
the door. I throw on my new old robe and look around the
apartment.
No Nevar. Or Chanlee.

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CHAPTER 9

They've left me alone in my perfect little apartment, snug as a bug.


A bug trying not to get squashed by incomprehensible forces.
When I was outside, who was in here lighting a path through my
things in the dark? To see what? Do what? I hesitate before
opening the closet door in my bedroom. Nothing hidden, nothing to
fear. Anger springs up in place of my apprehension. I know where
Chanlee is. She's wheedled her way back to Dan's.
Not for long.
I knock on his door. Once, twice, three times. Finally it
opens.
"Mind giving me time to get changed?" Dan says sleepily,
shielding his eyes from the hall light. His apartment is immersed in
darkness, and he's wearing nothing but his silk robe. Mentholated
lavender with a hint of chamomile wafts through the bedridden air.
He leans dreamily against the jamb, and the loosely secured robe
slides open.
I tug on the belt of my robe. "Uh, sorry for waking you up. I
thought Chanlee had taken up your offer of a cola."
"Then you don't need any help with the Watcher?" he says
and yawns. "I saw him out there when I turned the lights out."
"Oh." So that's where Chanlee and Nevar are. "Mind if I have
a look?"
Not that I haven't been looking. And looking. Maybe I'm
seeing more than there really is, but I think he's telling me he's
available. He straightens up--Damn!--and guides me through the
darkness to the window. No Watcher. But Chanlee and Nevar are
tight and cozy beside his Prius. Some help she is. I give them a
moment's grace of perfect understanding, then I put a lid on it.
She's not the only one who knows how to help. Dan's dining table
always has a food bowl on it. Like thunder after lightning, I'm out on
the balcony hurling a red pepper at them in a flash. It lands on
the roof of his car. The sound is sweet music to my ears.
They duck behind the car, and I laugh. Being helpful sure
feels great. But I don't think I'm being helpful enough. I zip inside for
more ammunition and run into Dan.
"Steady," he says, taking hold of my shoulders. I gear up to
push past him, but he adds, "One target at a time, Rane. Your
friends have no intentions of harming you. But the Watcher? What
are his intentions?"

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I release my intentions in a drawn-out sigh. But before I take


another breath, they're replaced by even more unsavory ones. Ever
since he opened the door, my body has been carrying on a
shamelessly intimate repartee with his. After all, he's already
warmed up the bed. No. No. Fitz is all I need. Tell that to my
duplicitous hormones raging against convention and anything else
that stands in the way of their satiation. Besides, what's the point of
locking myself in a corner when I'm splitting for Europe? Hell, I'm
already halfway there. But is that what I really want? I close my
eyes and feel Fitz's breath on my lips as he whispers, "Yes."
"That's better," Dan says and tweaks my nose. "I didn't know
you had an impetuous streak."
"Impetuous? I've been wanting to do something like that
since I met the jerk."
"I daresay what they're doing together is about you," he says
slowly. "There's no need for you to feel threatened by Chanlee.
She's--"
"I don't feel threatened by her."
"Whatever feelings propelled that piece of fruit--"
"Red pepper."
"--were wasted because he's here for you. He knows he'll
never find Kenny Hironaka in your apartment."
"How do you know he's looking for Kenny?"
"Who isn't? Haven't you been following the story in the
media?" The biggest stress in his life right now is how to entertain
Myrtle's parents for a whole day. Yet he probably knows more
about what's going on with Kenny than I do.
In the darkness I can feel him, sense him like he's in the air I
breathe. The smell of the mentholated lavender and chamomile
soothes while it tantalizes. His shadowy form is no match for the
vivid images of him snaking through my mind.
"We know so much about each other, you and I," I say, my
voice husky from trying to hold back the rising tide. "Things we
don't share with anyone else. Sure I've seen Myrtle a few times, but
I've never met her or anyone else important in your life."
"That's because they're not as important as you."
He brushes back a lock of my damp hair. His soft skin is cool
and unnerving against my hot face.
"Uh, Dan…." The unfinished words burn my throat.
"The lift has stopped on this floor. He's coming to claim you."
Even forewarned, the pounding on the door jolts me.
"Ask him what he was talking about with Chanlee," Dan says
in my ear as he places his hands on my shoulders and turns me
towards the door. "If he denies he was talking about you, he's a liar
and a coward. I'll stake my word on that." He pushes me forward
gently.

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Well, push is an exaggeration. I don't need any


encouragement to go, even though I feel like Nevar is on the other
side of the door jerking my chain. It's time I had it out with him once
and for all. And Chanlee better not get any bright ideas about
helping.
Either of us.
I throw the door open then have to hold myself back from
slamming it in his face. I mean, who is this filthy, beaten up
guttersnake with his encrusted hair flecked with blood? And why is
he scowling at me?
He tries to run his fingers through his hair, but they get stuck.
"The latest addition to my general good taste in grooming is red
pepper that some hothead threw at me. Can't think why, can you?"
His smirk subsides as he condemns my attire with a naked stare.
Then he narrows his eyes and peers into the darkness behind me.
Dan stays back as a silken shadow.
Looking over my shoulder, I say, "Thanks for everything,
Dan. Have a great time tomorrow. Maybe when you get back, you
and Myrtle can come over for coffee."
"You won't catch me saying no, but we'll have to see what
she says." His voice is subdued and strangely remote.
I close the door softly then yell at Nevar. "Where's Chanlee?
What have you done with her?"
"She's driving home," he replies quietly.
"Like hell she is." I grab the front of his jacket with both
hands. "She doesn't have her car here."
Instead of fighting back, he pulls out his cell and cups it
around my hands. "She's driving my car."
I grab the cell and punch in her number. "You'd better be
telling the truth, Nevar."
"He's telling the truth," Chanlee says from the other end.
"And you would know," I say. I dash to the stairwell to get
some privacy, but he dogs my steps. "That was quite a tête-à-tête
you two were having out in the parking lot. What was so compelling
that you had to fall over each other to say it?"
"So what's your question?"
"You heading home?"
"Uh-huh."
"Without me?"
"You said you were staying."
"Yeah, but I never said anything about staying with him."
"His name is Stefan. He'll stay outside if you make him, but
he's not going to leave you there alone."
"Come back here, Chanlee! I don't see why I'm the one who
has to be foisted with him."

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"After he explains--if you let him explain a few things, you'll


see why it's better if he stays and watches over you."
"I'll get back to you in a bit," I say and hang up.
He reaches out in front of me and opens the door on the
fourth, but I push past him and keep going down. I want to check
out my locker to see if the psychos have left me anymore
messages. Nevar's footsteps echo after mine on the cement stairs.
I turn suddenly and say in his face, "What were you and
Chanlee talking about at your car?"
"You," he says, unfazed. "We were talking about you."
It felt like a compliment when Dan said it.
"I was telling her that you lack a sense of humor," he adds
so smoothly it grates. He looks into my eyes with a steady,
uncompromising gaze that makes my skin crawl.
"Maybe it's the company I keep. Or maybe I don't have any
freaking time to laugh because I'm using it all up trying to stay
ahead of the psychos out to kill me."
"Or maybe you're too busy chasing down what you want out
of life to make the time."
"You should talk, Nevar. You've been making a royal ass of
yourself around Dan with all your posturing, strutting and huffing to
get Chanlee away from Dan." I continue my downward spiral, this
time with him by my side.
"I was wrong. She shouldn't have come with us."
"What's that supposed to be? An apology?" He nods. "Like
hell it is. You haven't said I'm right."
"You need it in blood?"
"No. All you have to do is say I'm right."
"I already have."
"Like hell. You said you were wrong. Tell me I'm right. Come
on, say it."
He fidgets with the paint peeling off the tube railing. If I'm
reading him right, he's going to detour into subterfuge.
"I didn't see a computer in your apartment," he says, his
eyes averted. "Did they get it?"
I'll be damned. I've found his Achilles heel. Some part of him,
whether it's the best or the worst, can't handle feeling small around
me. Now that I've caught him in a moment of weakness, I just have
to ask, "About my painting of Mt. Rundle's dueling peaks. Do you
really think they look like ice-cream cones?"
"No. I think they look like tits covered in chocolate syrup."
Jerk. Doesn't have the decency to lie.
I turn my back on him.
"No need to be offended. I admire your efforts. It takes real
courage to paint with your talent."
"Does your mother know you're so rude?"

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"No, but my wife does."


I hesitate as we pass the main floor, dying to turn and face
him, but I stop myself because I don't want him to see my surprise.
Wife? What wife? The over-processed blond that dwarfs the
mountains? Just the right showpiece for a man who prefers boys.
In the storage room I check both lockers. The only thing
amiss is that Dan's is still full of his things, including his bike parts.
My shadow stays behind me, a quiet presence totally in tune with
this dark, cement encased tomb.
All of a sudden, he presses his face against the wire mesh
door, peers inside and grunts something about being careless.
"What do you think you're going to find in there, Nevar?"
"I've already found it." He rattles the door and shakes loose
my misgivings about being alone with him amidst these cages and
the gods only know what else. "Open it!" he commands.
"No." I don't believe he's found anything, but if he has, I'm
not going to let him have it.
The cold, hard look on his face chills me. The dark forces
behind that look won't take no for an answer. I shove my hand into
the patch pocket in the front of my robe containing my keys and
make a fist with the keys wedged between my fingers. He's
standing between me and the exit, waiting for me to try to break
past him. But I step back. He lunges at me. He misses the pocket
but grabs onto the robe as I try to pull away. The more I pull, the
more of my robe he claims. Something's got to give, and it sure as
hell isn't going to be me. Half nude and totally prepared to match
my skills against his strength, I cross step into him with my keyed
fist between us.
Suddenly, he releases my robe and laughs. "You thought I
was serious?!" He tries in his drunken laughter to help me do up my
robe, but I warn him to back off. "I rest my case," he says. "You
have no sense of humor."
I don't release my keys from my fist until we arrive back at
my apartment.
"It's the end of the line for you, Nevar," I say, blocking the
doorway.
"Fine," he says with a smile that looks so sincere I know it's
phony. "You wouldn't let me get cleaned up at your folks' place.
Just let me wash up, then I'll shove off."
What's the quickest way to get rid of him?
I let him in, and he walks quietly into the bathroom without
any fuss. He closes the door and turns on the shower.
"Nevar, don't you dare use my shower!" I pound on the door.
"I'll be out in five," he says and drowns out my pounding with
Otschi Tschornije. In key, yet. Definitely a man of many talents, he
can do subterfuge in any key.

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I haul the foam mats from the closet. But instead of springing
into action with a kickass workout, I throw my air mattress on top of
the mats and sink into the air. I'm too wiped to fight paper tigers. My
body is yearning to conk out, but I have to keep my bag and keys
safe from Nevar. I rig up the dresser in the closet, with a 25 pound
weight on the shelf above. If he opens the drawer stashing the bag,
the weight will fall on him.
That done, I change into my blue pjs that only a few days
ago had snowflakes on them instead of white daisies. Another
meaningless difference. The shower stops running, but I can't hear
a peep out of him. Ah, there's a rustling sound. I race up and press
my ear to the door. No, not a rustling, more like a clamping or--The
door opens and I fall into him. The only thing in his hands is me.
And I seriously doubt he has anything tucked under the towel he's
wearing. Nothing that would make those kinds of sounds.
"Well, well, if it isn't Bambi."
"What have you been up to, Nevar?"
I push past him and look around the cramped room covered
with postage stamp beige tiles, all warm and steamy. Without
replying, he leans back against the wall and watches me like he's
enjoying my frustration. No point in trying to get an answer from
him. He'll just lie anyway. Bet he hid something in the toilet tank.
I pick up his clothes draped over the toilet seat. "Buenas
noches, Nevar."
He takes the clothes but says, "I'm not putting these back
on."
"Then I guess you'll just have to go out like that, because
you're not staying here."
"What do you think I'll do to you?"
"Nothing."
"And that worries you?"
I point to the exit.
"If I were going to slit your throat while you're sleeping, do
you really think I would do it with Chanlee's and Dan's knowledge?"
I remain silent because he's got me cornered with a double-edged
sword. "That would be incredibly careless of me, in view of the fact
that I am the alleged master criminal who always manages to
deflect suspicion away from himself."
"Oh, go ahead and sleep on the floor in the living room, but I
don't want to see your face in the morning. You got it, Nevar?" I'm
in no mood to argue with the smirk on his face. I slide past him into
my bedroom and bolt the door.
He gives me about two seconds of peace.
"Rane, you don't need all those foam mats." Using the
non-lethal of the two sliding doors to the closet, I haul out six of the

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2 x 2 feet mats, open the bedroom door, throw them at him and bolt
the door again.
I lay down and try to relax to the sounds of him moving the
exercise equipment around to make room for the mats.
This time he gives me about five minutes of peace.
"Have a spare blanket and pillow?" he says from the other
side of the door.
"No!"
I hear him walking away from the door. Finally. Now I can
get some sleep. The hall closet door slides open.
"Stay out of my things, Nevar!" I jump up, grab a pillow and
blanket from the closet, open the door and charge at him. I shove
them into his stomach, but he's too many steps ahead of me to be
thrown off guard.
"Find what you were looking for?" I ask.
"Yes and no." He gives me a puffed up smile and starts
fluffing up the pillow.
I check the closet. My jacket pockets are about the only
things that could possibly be of interest to him. I go through them
one by one. All empty except for a canceled transit ticket. Hell, this
whole place is full of meaningless details. I walk back into the living
room. The towel he was wearing is hanging from my bike handle.
He's stretched out on his back under the blanket, with his hands
tucked behind his head on the pillow but within quick reach of his
cell, wallet and keys nestled on top of his pants folded beside him.
He's about as comfortable and self-satisfied as any wolf can be
inside the lamb's den.
"My, what big ears you have," I say, slapping my cheeks in
feigned wide-eyed innocence.
"My teeth are even bigger. Come here, Bambi, and I'll show
you."
"Get real. How close do you think I need to get to see I'm
staring down the barrel of a gun? Dream on, Nevar."
"We're only as real as our dreams, Rane. Sure you don't
want me to pick any of those little white daisies with my teeth?"
It feels like at least one of us is lighting firecrackers under my
skin.
I fold my arms across my chest. "Stop looking at me like
that."
"I can't help it. I've found the girl who followed the yellow
brick road."
"So you don't approve of me. I must be doing something
right."
"Disapprove of you?" His amusement makes his eyes
sparkle. "I envy that girl. Her path came paved. A coaster's dream.

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But she charges ahead, grabbing power for herself by knocking


down all the direction and warning signs."
"That is such a crock." I find myself chuckling anyway.
"Reality doesn't come preassembled. Neither does life. Like
everyone else, I have to create and edit my own manual."
"I meant that you live like your life really depends on it. And
you must admit you get a charge out of power."
"How does anyone exist without it? Do I like to use it? Sure.
Try paving any path without it. But what do the signs on your road
say, huh, Snow White? Danger ahead, soul under construction?"
"Not my soul, my dreams."
"Too bad mine came prefab, huh? Because if I had any
spare bricks on hand, I'd help pave your way out of here."
He shakes his head. "You'd add them to the wall you're
building around yourself."
I shrug halfheartedly and dodge his pointed remark, because
I feel like I've been taking all the right turns to the wrong place. "Is
there anything else you'd like to complain, whine, gripe or fuss
about before I go into my bedroom and try to get some sleep?"
"Where's your TV?"
"Don't have one."
"Do you have a book I could read?"
"No."
"How about a radio?"
"I've got a clock radio in my room, but you're not getting it
even if I have to keep it on all night to drown out your whining." I
shut off the ceiling light, but he turns on the table lamp he rigged up
beside his makeshift bed.
"Now what?" I snap.
"Where's your computer?"
"What business is it of yours?"
"Did they get it?"
"Why do you want to know?"
"I'll loan you one if--"
"I'll tell you if you tell me what you and Chanlee were really
talking about in the parking lot."
"We were talking about your painting."
"I don't doubt for a second that you could wax eternal about
a painting you've never seen, but I know Chanlee wouldn't. She'd
have to run out for a cola."
"We were talking about how to convince you to let me see
it." Now that I believe. "About the computer," he prompts.
"If you must know, I sold the one I had to pay for my return
airfare from Italy."
The way he's looking at me is making me all jumpy and
scratchy inside. Like I'm missing the point. What juicy tidbits of info

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does he think I have for him in this ghost of a computer he's lusting
after? "Are you asking if I scanned the painting into the computer?"
"No."
"That's awfully vague."
"No is vague?"
"It is when you say it."
He rolls over onto his side and cradles his head and pillow in
his arm. Then, keeping his eyes on me he says, "You've done this
place up like a pit stop."
"You don't like it? You're welcome to buzz off home."
"No can do. I'm still dreaming. Home is where my dreams
are and my dreams aren't there anymore."
"Where are you from, Nevar?"
"Just west of Upper Musquodoboit."
"Where's that?"
"North of Middle Musquodoboit."
"Which is…?"
"North of Musquodoboit."
I snatch the pillow and hit him with it. "Tell me. What have
you got to hide?"
"Nothing. Musquodoboit is east of Brussels."
"That leaves most of Europe and all of Asia. Would it kill you
to cut the legal babble and give a simple, straightforward, honest
answer to a question? Hell, you'd think all you learned from law
school was how to bury the truth."
"The Brussels I'm talking about is west of Europe," he says,
licking his lips like he's already enjoying the taste of the daisies.
I pull down my top to keep him from denuding the whole
bouquet. "I never asked you where Brussels is, I asked you where
you're from."
"Would you believe St.-Louis-du-Ha! Ha!?"
"No." I eye the pillow, but he's hugging it tightly to his chest.
"Well then, how about Rocky Mountain?"
"You're hopeless. I get more intellectual stimulation when I'm
comatose." I lift myself up, but he takes hold of my waist and pulls
me back down. "Forget it, Snow White. You're never going to get
any closer to me than St.-Louis-du-Har! Har!"
"Close enough for--"
"Not for me. I don't know what you're seeing and feeling. But
I've fallen into the widening abyss of lies and suspicion between
us."
"Maybe if you unchained your heart, you might--"
My back snaps to attention. "Unchain my heart?! Hell, I've
been giving you more credit than you deserve if you really believe
you can seduce me with a litany of clichés. You can't really believe
you're going to get anywhere by accusing me of being--Ooh! It's too

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horrid to mention!--FRIGID. Fruk, I bet that dead old horse is right


up there at the top of your seduction routines. 'I've got what it takes
to thaw your cold heart,' he pants in the ear of his prey. 'And your
frigid vagina.' Spare me, Nevar."
"I was going to say that if you unchained your heart you
might be able to see past Fitz."
"Oh." My body--horny, unconscionable traitor that it
is--welcomes his words and relaxes.
"For you, love is an anchor not a harbor. But, Bambi, it's all
about where your heart is, not where it's been."
I clamp a hand over his mouth. "No more subterfuge, Nevar.
The chasm between us is rancid with all the things you know but
refuse to share with me. You torpedo my questions and sabotage
my feelings. To what end, huh? We're both sinking."
He pulls my hand off his lips but keeps holding my hand. I
yank it away.
"What do you want to know?" he asks sounding pleased with
himself. My hand is free, but what does he care? He thinks he's
captured all of me.
"I never told you about Fitz. Did Chanlee tell you?"
"No."
"You're being vague again. See? I ask a simple question and
you ward me off. Where is Kenny Hironaka?"
"I don't know."
I study his face, which is the picture of sincerity. What skilled
deceiver doesn't look sincere?
"Il volto sciolto ed i pensieri stretti," I say, more to myself
than to him. His eyes smile. From understanding or a lack of it?
They're so dark the mystery in them is seductive. Now what was I
going to say? Uh…oh yes--
"Better that than showing your hidden agenda in your face,"
he says, and my face warms.
"You really don't know where Kenny is?" He shakes his
head. "But you have a pretty good idea, don't you?"
"I have an idea, but I'm not sure how good it is."
"Push, push. Away I go." I tug on the pillow he's holding.
"It's safer for you if you don't know certain things."
"Are you trying to win the dumbass award or something?
You can't possibly believe that you can protect me by keeping me
in the dark where I can't see where the hell I'm going or who's
coming at me?" He gives me a blank stare. "And you think
patronizing me is smart?!"
"Yes. Someone has to stop you from taking on Kenny's
abductors as a one woman army."

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"So you do know who's got him." I bend down quickly and
stop short of rubbing noses with him. "And what's your part in all
this, huh, Nevar?"
He gets up and lifts me up with him. The blanket slides down
between us. Buzzzzz. He's zeroing in for the sting.
"You're right. This isn't a good idea. I'll catch a cab home and
drop you off at Chanlee's on the way."
"I'm not leaving, but I'm sure your wife is waiting with bated
breath for you. What have you done with her, anyway? Where have
you buried her?"
"Do you care?"
The look I give him has no written all over it.
"Good. Because neither do I."
And he smiles. I blink a couple of times while I look into his
eyes. Hell, that's not a smile on his lips. It's an invitation to a kiss.
I'm not going there. No way. Then why are my lips zeroing in on his
like a heat-seeking missile? Ah, to hell with talk. The one thing his
lips don't need is more chatter.

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CHAPTER 10

Before I'm fully awake in the morning, the scent of him overtakes
me. Let me be dreaming. I open my eyes. Damn. I'm in a dream all
right. His.
Nevar stares at me a breath away on the air mattress in my
bedroom. Lying on his side with his head propped up by his elbow,
he's lit up with a smile that radiates all the way to my hand resting
on his backside under the blanket. My face warms to the thought of
the touch. How to move my hand without drawing attention to
myself?
"Any guesses why only one of us is smiling?" I say, faking a
yawn to free my hand. Then I ease into a stretch as an excuse to
slide away from him.
"Couldn't be because you have all the pillow and most of the
blanket."
No, it has more to do with the fact that I'm an idiot. If you're
going to allow yourself to be seduced, Rane, for heaven's sake
make sure it isn't by the devil.
"I can't help smiling," he adds, cozying up to me. "I went to
bed with Bambi and woke up with Gilda."
Oh, so now he's going to drag out all his old girlfriends and
parade them through my bedroom to show me how I stack up.
Seeing that he's hit a sour note, he says, "Oh dear, that deer
was too dear, my dear." He smiles like an idiot, and I groan.
"Now that you've got out your measuring stick, want to know
how you size up to Fitz?" He starts to reply, but I add quickly, "He's
much more--"
My cell buzzes. I glance at the clock in the corner.
Twelve-forty?! Shit, shoot, shite, it's Fitz! I was supposed to call him
hours ago. Nevar reaches behind him and picks up a cell. A silver
one. My blue and white one is safe and sound in the closet. Or is it?
"Thanks, Tildy….I understand….Get back to me," he says
into the phone then hangs up.
Whew! A close call. I'd better get mobile before Fitz does
call.
"Now where were we?" Nevar asks, his voice soft and easy
but uncomfortable to my ears.
Uh-oh, he's looking at me like he hasn't had enough daisies.
I wish I had more than a sheet and blanket covering me.

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"You were leaving." I try to get up with the blanket wrapped


around me, but he won't let go of his corner of it.
"Come here." He reaches for me.
I drop down on top of him and roll onto the other side of the
mattress, wrapping myself in the blanket as I go. Good plan, except
now I have all the blanket, and he has all of me. To hell with the
blanket! I scramble to my feet, triumphant. He's no match for my
lightning speed. Yeah right. I trip on the blanket and sail into his
waiting arms. His eyes sparkle with delight. I don't see any danger
in them, yet I know he's dangerous. This is a man who knows how
to commune with my demons. I wish he didn't feel the way he does,
or smell the way--
Thump, thump, thump. Pause. Thump, thump, thump.
My body freezes while my heart and mind race ahead of the
next set of thumps. Definitely three. Dan's warning me that Fitz is
coming! Holy hell! I jump up without Nevar impeding me and race
around in circles. "Where's my robe? What have you done with my
robe?"
"I don't have it." He stands up in his naked glory. "Relax. It's
just someone stamping on the floor in one of the apartments above
us."
Wearing the blanket like a tent, he races after me as I tear
into the living room, grab his clothes and things, zip out the front
door and hurl the bundle into the elevator.
"Rane," he says between quick breaths. His pleading,
confused voice rankles. "What is this about?"
I dodge around him and his question and lock myself in the
apartment. But his voice calling my name sneaks in through the
door. It's creepy hearing my name like it's coming from far away yet
from deep inside me. I race back into my bedroom and peek out
from behind the curtains. Fitz! Rain drizzles on his black leathers as
the tail end of his chrome-ladden bike disappears behind the
garbage bin. I sigh and sigh again with relief. He saw that my
curtains were closed, so he's leaving without waking me.
Fitz, you deserve better than me.
Last night was an unmitigated disaster. How could have I
been so…so willing? All I had to do was go to my room by myself.
But Nevar's the question on the exam that you can't forget because
it's the big one you got wrong. He's the provocative, potentially
harmful, relevant but highly objectionable statement stricken from
the court record. He's the tree of knowledge I'm not supposed to
partake of, while he satisfies his lust for daisies growing in the
garden. I'm not supposed to enjoy exploring the forbidden and
beyond. I'm supposed to say no to satisfy others, those
anonymous, intrusive, know-it-all, know-nothing others who rip your
conscience to shreds if you don't allow them to dictate what you do.

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They keep score, to what purpose, no one really knows. All we


know is that we're supposed to care about the score even though
we're not allowed to see what it is. Oh yes, Nevar's a dangerous
man. My exhausted body is still aching for more.
It's shaping up to be another never-ending day.
I stare out at the naked green ash tree on the edge of the
parking lot. Beads of rainwater cling precariously to the underside
of the bare branches. A sparrow alights on a branch, and the light
trapped within the beads sparkles as they fall. My hopes for finding
Kenny fall with the light. In the spring when I found out I flunked the
physical part of my police training, I stood in this very spot and
watched snow lashing tender buds bursting with life that I was sure
would be stillborn. But it took the snows of autumn to kill the leaves
that had sprung forth.
Guess I should scour the apartment for the psychos'
fingerprints. No, I'd better get over to Fitz's place before his
suspicions turn into a breach. Damn. Mabie-Toogod's tea is this
afternoon. I run my finger tips along my parched lips then do a
drum roll on them. I've also got a riding lesson with Lulie. And I've
invited Dan and his sweetie over for coffee after they get back
from--Hold on. How could Dan have signaled me? He's in Radium
Hot Springs. Or did he say they were going to Fairmount? No, I
think he just said they were going to the hot springs. What the fruk
does it matter? Obviously the trip's off because of the rain. Better
give him a call. And Fitz.
I slide open the closet door to retrieve my cell and stop
abruptly, cocking my head at the faint but unmistakable sound of a
key turning in the entrance door. Fitz?! I dive between the sheets.
Wrong, wrong. He knows I don't like sleeping in the buff alone. I
hightail it into the bathroom, jump into the shower and start yodeling
loud enough to wake up the dead.
The bathroom door opens slowly, and through
Michelangelo's David undulating in the plastic showercurtain, I stare
at Chanlee.
"Oh! It's you," I say, sounding disappointed but not meaning
to.
"How was your golden boy?" she asks, smiling like the
thought of him is turning her on.
"Don't start with me." I resume washing myself then do a
double take at her. She's still wearing yesterday's clothes. I fling
back the curtain. "Don't you smile at me! You've been with Dan."
Her smile disappears under her T-shirt as she pulls it over
her head.
"What are you doing?" I ask like I really don't know.

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"I'm not getting in there with my clothes on." Her jeans slump
on top of her bag on the floor, and she steps onto the edge of the
tub.
"Wait until I'm finished."
"I've got an important date in an hour." She steps around me
and begins washing herself.
"With Dan you're just going from the frying pan into the fire."
"You should talk. He offered me a cola. What's your
excuse?"
"Sooner or later you're going to have to realize that Bruno--"
"Bruno who?"
"More like Chanlee who? Are you out of your tree?"
"Chill out, Rane, you're steaming up the mirror." She picks
up a sea sponge. "Here. Do my back." She throws the sponge at
me.
I catch it and throw it back at her. "It's my shower, you scrub
mine."
"Why should I? You've already done yours." She turns her
back to me and throws the sponge over her shoulder.
Red lines streak diagonally from her shoulders down to the
ribs on each side.
"You're not getting into the rough stuff, now are you,
Chanlee?"
"They're love marks."
"They look more like--"
"He's athletic and imaginative like you wouldn't believe. Now
stop fussing and start scrubbing."
I rub cautiously over the lines on her lean, taut back. She's
got muscles to die for. Not many brains, though, if she really
believes these marks on her back are made of love.
"When Bruno sees these he's going to--"
"I'll leave Fitz out of this if you stop throwing Bruno at me."
"It's different with me and Nevar. I never planned it. Hell,
until my lips landed on his, I didn't know I was available."
"Uh-huh. So I'm not supposed to have sex with someone
because I want to. I'm supposed to be like you and have sex with
someone because he wants to."
"I never said I didn't want to." I get out of the shower and
check out the toilet tank. Nothing untoward inside. I gaze around
the room. What was Nevar doing in here that would make a
clanking noise?
"What are you looking for?"
"Not sure."
She starts scanning the room through the body of
Michelangelo's lust. Might as well. She knows what I'm looking for
about as well as I do.

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"You know, Chanlee, sooner or later you're going to have to


realize that he's not a pop-up toy that springs in and out of
existence at your whim."
"Who are we talking about now, Bruno or Fitz?"
"Never mind. Why Dan?"
"I know love makes us blind, but you saw Dan way before
you laid eyes on Stefan."
"Dan's taken, Chanlee."
"Who isn't?"
I turn my back on her trashy smile and head into the
bedroom.
"What's she like?" she asks from the bathroom.
"A tall blond." I put on a long sleeve T-shirt and a pair of
jeans. Everything fits, but not exactly because nothing's been
broken in by this curve and that hollow of my body.
"Who isn't these days?" She appears at the doorway, in a
towel sarong and her bag slung over her shoulder. She pulls out a
comb from her bag. "What does Dan do?"
"Besides ply my friends with cola? You were with him all
night, and it never occurred to you to ask him that?"
"I was busy touring his body. Didn't even get close to
exploring all the avenues, I can tell you."
The feel of Nevar creeps over my body. "Dan sells
insurance."
"You're kidding?! Does anyone really sell insurance outside
of the movies? I thought all the insurance salesmen were made of
celluloid. What's his name?" I stare at her. "His last name."
"Istenly."
Her nose wrinkles in disdain.
"Is he still around?" She shakes her head while she combs
her hair. "Oh. So it was you who warned me about Fitz?"
She stares at me quizzically. "You mean the stamping
thing?" She shakes her head. "I rocked, danced, and rolled but I
never stamped. What you heard must have been me putting my
gymnastic training to good use."
"No, someone signaled me. It had to have been Dan."
She shakes her head. "He was with me every second, every
touch, every look, every move of the way. Hmm, so Fitz showed up.
The faithful guard dog on the prowl. That explains Stefan's
absence, and why it isn't just your hair that's frazzled."
"Did you tell Nevar or anyone else about the signal?"
"No."
"Then Dan must have."
"He's no singer."
"One roll in the hay doesn't make you an authority on him."
"One?!" she snickers.

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She pulls her black cell out of her bag. "Here. Call him."
I start dialing then stop. I'm always calling on him to do
favors for me. "I've locked my keys in the car, Dan." "Will you dress
in drag for me, Dan?" "Will you stop screwing around with my
friends, Dan?" Once, just once, I'd like to phone him and say I did
something for him. "And you never had to ask, Dan. I just did it
because you're my friend," I'd say. Better yet, I'd love to be able to
do something for him without drawing attention to myself. But I don't
have anything to give him. Not that he'd want for more than a few
minutes.
"Go ahead. Call him," Chanlee urges gently. "Don't worry
about intruding on his outing. He's at the dinosaur museum."
"The one in Medicine Hat, I mean, Drumheller?"
"Uh-huh. He's up to his neck in dinosaur doo-doo, walking on
eggshells with a lampshade on his head to impress Myrtle's
parents. If his voice sounds strange, that'll be him sending you one
kiss after another from the Mesozoic era, to thank you for the
chance to fast forward 150 million years."
"He should be entertaining my parents. Hell, all he'd have to
do to get on my mother's good side is fit the wedding suit--"
"And the life."
"--she's picked out for him. Dad's a different story, though.
He's hard to read sometimes because he prefers to communicate
to the world through his machines. He seems to like Fitz well
enough, but does he really like him?"
Chanlee scours my clothes in the closet, looking for
something to wear.
"Dammit. Dan's not answering," I say, then try Fitz to no
avail. She slides open the other side of the closet and reaches for
the dresser. "Don't touch th--" I tackle her. We crash against the
wall as the weight falls.
"Who you trying to kill with that besides me?!" she says,
staring at the dent in the parquet.
"Sorry, I forgot to disarm it." I hand her the cell, take out my
bag and root around for mine. "I knew it. He took it. What? Here are
my keys. Why didn't he take them?"
"Let me have a look." She grabs the bag. "Before I forget,
yesterday your mother called your cell."
"Oh?"
"She had the dream of dreams Thursday night, and guess
who was getting married in it?" She moves methodically from
compartment to compartment in a fruitless search for the cell.
"Will her subconscious never give up?"
"She said you were getting married on a boat." She looks up
at me. "There's no cell in here."

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I sit down on the mattress to put on my socks. "Her dreams


have taken a real sadistic turn. She knows I don't like boats."
"That's what's got her so excited. She says it means you're
conquering your fear of--" She cuts herself off and stares at me.
"You're sitting on your phone!" She reaches under the pillow I'm
half sitting on, and she pulls out the silver cell.
"It's his." I jump up and snatch it from her.
"I don't like that intoxicated look in your eye. What are you
going to do with it?"
"Use it to get out of this mess he's gotten me into."
"How is stealing his call list going to get you out of trouble?"
"Damned if I know. But this is the first real break I've had. I
wouldn't dare piss off the gods by ignoring one of their gifts." I
glance at the clock. "Got a rendezvous with the Duke."
"Did you say Dan?"
"No, a bike. It's--" I stop myself because I remember Dan's
bike. "Meet me outside by the garbage bin," I say, grabbing an
exercise bar from the closet. "We're going to retrieve Dan's
derailleur so I can order him a new one."
"I'm not going near that Dumpster unless I'm in the car. She
strolls into the bathroom.
"Fine, just don't take all day tearing yourself away from the
mirror. I need a lift to Brittanski Drive."

As soon as I'm out in the hall, I press Redial on Nevar's


phone. I want to get some action from this thing before he tips
everyone off that I've got it.
"Stefan! Terrific news!" a woman's voice says in a thick
Scandinavian accent. "Darien's got it! Can you meet him at the…at
the--" Damn, she hung up. Or were we cut off? I press Redial. No
answer. Okay, so they're onto me. But I still have their numbers.
She's the blond job chasing him up the mountain, but who's
Darien? Is he the Hiker?
I detour to the basement to check out Dan's locker.
Too late. Nevar beat me to it.
The lock's intact on a door that's been cut open with wire
cutters. Whatever Nevar saw last night is gone with him. Or is he
gone? I have the feeling I'm being watched. I take the exercise bar
in both hands and turn into the row containing my unit.
Nothing.
A beam of light flickers across the floor in front of the end
unit then disappears. But it came from unit 53 directly across from
mine--well, from my things in Dan's locker. The door is shut, but I
can see the outline of someone inside. My gut is telling me it's the
Hiker. Or the Watcher. But it's probably Nevar. I tiptoe up to the
unit, stopping short of the door to see inside without being seen.

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Suddenly, the door flies opens.


No one steps out.
I hold the bar vertically, ready to jump into the unit and lock
his neck with it. A drawn-out swish and grunt ripple through the air.
I jump. Wham! A middleaged woman carrying a box of mangy old
dolls slams into me. She screams, I catch my breath in surprise and
the box flies out of her hands. I drop the bar to catch the box. She
trips over the bar, and I fall on top of her with the box.
"You can't have my babies!" she screeches as she tries to
buck me off.
"Whoa!" I say, landing on the floor. "I'm sorry, but I thought
someone was rifling through--"
"Gimme my babies!" She grabs the box, backs away and
squints at me. I stare at her too. She's thick but bandy like her dolls,
and her long, curly brown hair looks like it grew out of remnants
from old dolls. She focuses most of her attention on my fluorescent
yellow gloves. "I know you. You're the pervert who lives in 56. I'm
reporting you." She thinks I'm Myrtle?! She hugs the box to her
chest and stomps off, muttering sweet nothings to her babies.

Outside, the air smells of rain, but the clouds are unloading
their cargo in the northeast of the city. The Watcher seems to have
disappeared with the rain. I poke around with the bar in the full bin.
And I poke. I lift out one disgusting piece of trash after another until
I catch a glimpse of the derailleur with the wide end sticking in a
potted plant that died of starvation, and with the pulley end wedged
in a toaster slot along with a black, slime-infested slice of toast.
I lift myself up and dangle over the edge of the bin to hook
the derailleur with the end of the bar. It's coming. Just a little more
to the left. Aha! I've got--
I'm jolted by someone slapping my backside. The derailleur
slips further down into the bin.
"Having fun yet?" Chanlee says and laughs.
"You jerk! I almost had it."
She's dressed to the nines in my black tube dress and
sling-back stilettos. In my sunglasses, drop earrings and with her
hair tucked up into my trilby, she could be me.
"What's this big date Bruno's taking you on? A stripper's
funeral?"
"Who said anything about a date with Bruno? Can't you do
this later? I'm late."
"Bully for you. I would have it now if you hadn't stopped me,
so you get it."
She hesitates then grabs the bar. "Sometimes you're a real
pain, you know that?" She lifts more rubbish out of the bin then
pokes around. "I think I've got it. Yes. Here it is. Crap. It dropped."

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She throws me the bar and rubs her hands together dismissively. I
throw the bar back at her.
"Why don't I just shoot the useless thing?" she says.
I point to the bin.
She lifts herself up and dips into it. "Okay, this time I've got
the sucker in my iron grip for sure. Don't just stand there, grab it.
I'm not touching the filthy thing."
I walk around to the side and grasp the derailleur. Then I jerk
down hard on the bar, and she falls face down into an open bag of
garbage.
"That should answer your question: You bet I'm having fun."
I look at the derailleur with triumph and disgust. It doesn't look
damaged, but what do I know?
She rubs the garbage off her face. "Mayonnaise. Gross."
"What are you complaining about? It's good for your skin."
"Well then, you're going to want some for sure." She scrapes
some off her face and comes at me with it.
I hoof it to the Doré with her in pursuit. "You're dreaming,
Chanlee. I can run faster than you."
"Not over long distances."
I run around a station wagon. "Go make love to the mirror
again, and I'll get the car started." I scan the lot without finding a
Prius; while she tries to decide whether to mess up my face or
beautify hers.
Beauty wins. She heads for the Doré.
"I'll see you around the front," I say, walking behind her but
safely out of reach.
She opens the door, turns around, throws me her keys and
points east. Seeing the keys fall short, she smiles. "It's on the next
block." The door closes.
What the hell? I've already got a set of her car keys. I pick
them up and groan. I'm holding Nevar's keys. Is that why she's
getting dolled up? Because she's going to his place to deliver the
car and guess what else?
He's her big date?!
Like hell he is.

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CHAPTER 11

Without a hitch I find the Prius and drive to Brittanski Drive.


Without Chanlee. She thinks Nevar's about as dangerous as a
dildo, and that Dan really is one. She wants to be with Nevar
today? She can walk.
At my parents' place, I see Lulie geared up in her leathers,
waiting on the Duke.
"Sorry I'm late, Lulie," I say, walking up the driveway.
"Are you late?" she says from somewhere in the garage.
At the same time, Dad says from behind the visor on the
bike, "Afternoon, Rane."
"Don't tell me you were riding the Duke?" I ask him.
He dismounts and takes off the helmet. "Maybe I'll replace
the Audi with one of these," he says, stroking his chin and looking
wistfully at the Duke. "Nothing this grand, mind. Not at first."
"What were you making in the garage?" I ask Lulie.
"Nothing. I just like to slug a hammer now 'n again."
Either I woke up on Tuesday in a parallel universe, or the
whole world has gone strange. Well, it's always been strange.
Mom appears around the back of the house and chucks a
plastic bag filled with soiled paper towels at Dad. "This is the last
straw, Terence. After he threw up in his bowl, that animal of yours
threw up on my Egyptian duvet. He's ruined it. My beautiful,
Egyptian duvet." Then she says as an aside, "Hello, Rane. If you
have anymore strays, please take care of them yourself."
"I'll take Mr McPickles back to the vet first thing in the
morning," Dad says, picking up the bagged throw-up.
"You clean up all the vomit from now on. And keep him from
chewing on Sheeka's tail, or there won't be anything left of it--her
poor beautiful tail," she says. "Come and help put down the drop
sheets."
"Yes, yes," Dad says, handing me the throw-up and pointing
to the garbage can by the curb. "Don't do anything on the Duke that
I would do," he says, touching my shoulder.
His hand slides off my shoulder onto the bike handle.
I shake my head in disbelief. He's like a kid falling in love for
the first time and agonizing over it like it's going to be the last.
"It's just a bike, Dad, not a love machine," I say.
"Hold your tongue," Lulie says, joining us. "There's
something dangerously wrong with anyone who doesn't fall in love

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with the Duke." We look at each other from opposite sides of the
universe. "You're different," she adds quickly. "You've got Fitz."
"Does she?" Dad says, loading the two words with more
meaning than I care to weigh through at the moment.
"I have to round up a couple things from the house," I say to
no one in particular, and drop the throw-up their way.

Rushing back outside, I find myself alone. Lulie's not in the


garage. But her bike is still standing guard in the driveway. Then I
hear a familiar choo-choo and whistle coming from the neighbor's
yard. Peering through the living fence on the other side of the
driveway, I see her riding in the locomotive cab of the train set Mr
Cribblekree built when I was a kid--to my endless delight. It rings
his house and my heart. Lulie disappears into the garage cum
station, and when she reappears around this side of the house, I
call out to her. But she waves me off, saying, "I gotta throw 'er into
reverse, hon, 'cause the cow catcher is stopping the draw bridge
from doing its thing over the pond."
Eventually, she gets around to joining me. "The Duke's been
telling me I should ride bitch seeing's how you're Fitz's girl. By the
by, how's it feel to be his girl?"
"These lessons are for me, not him." I say coldly.
"Sure they are, hon." The expression on her face is
ambiguous, but her wink isn't. Neither is the content of the plastic
bag I throw at her.
Geared up and rolling, I ask, "Mind if we stop at a bike
shop?"
"You must be joking. Try getting me out of hog heaven."
"Sorry, I meant cycle shop."
She makes a cross with her forefingers. "As long as you
don't expect me to foul my boots crossing the threshold."
Two hours and umpteen bumps and grinds later, trying to
keep us upright on the quick-spill surfaces left by the rain, I pull up
at the Spoke'n Wheels Cycle Stop in the deep south. Before I can
locate the sales counter through the jungle of bikes coming at me
from the ceiling, walls and floor, a short bald guy with a doughboy
body and head long enough to look like it was formed in a vise,
corners me.
"Good afternoon, good afternoon! Have you picked the
perfect day--PERFECT DAY!--to go for a ride on your new
mountain bike!" he says in a rapid fire staccato. Those aren't words
coming out of his mouth, they're bullets. He shakes a finger at me.
"I caught that eyebrow shooting up." At least I know that eyebrows
are supposed to come in pairs, you numbskull. "You're wondering
how I know you're here to buy a mountain bike. Years of training,
years of training. Years." He shakes his head in disbelief, but he

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doesn't seem to notice I'm doing the same thing. "You're a


mountain bike kinda gal. Am I right, little lady, or am I right?" I let
him talk because sooner or later he has to pause long enough to
breathe. But did this runt say I'm little? "You're just in time for our
closing special." He rubs his hands together like he's sharpening
his fork and knife in anticipation of the big kill. "You're not going to
believe--totally won't believe the deal we have for you. Strictly
pro-quality titanium frame, sensored hub with…."
"Whoa," I say. But instead of slowing down, he whips himself
up into hurricane speed. This is one windbag who doesn't have an
off switch. There must be some language he understands besides
blatherskiteta. I turn my back to him and face the exit. Suddenly,
silence reigns. I turn back to him and hold up the derailleur to his
face. "I want to order one of these, please."
"Why didn't you say so?" Without taking the derailleur or
giving it a close look, he says, "This is a stock item, but we're out of
them at this location. I'll have one sent over from our other store,
and you can pick it up tomorrow. We close at 9:00. Now about
that--"
"Isn't this a special order import?"
He looks at me like I'm trying to ride a bike without wheels.
"If Saudi Arabia can import sand, we can import bicycle parts from
Belgium. Now about our special…."
Seeing me come out with my face tied in knots, Lulie asks,
"No luck, hon?"
"Depends what kind of luck you mean. At times like this,
certain people are damn lucky that I'm not carrying a gun."
From our vantage point at the crest of a hill, bright and shiny
under a patch of open sky, I look down the asphalt river. My gaze
follows the glittering headlights streaming to the city center
shrouded in the mist. In the sunshine, we ride with the wind blowing
the rain our way, each drop a pellet warning that the road is
treacherous up ahead.
"Swing by the central library," she says.

"Dukes and books," I say as she comes out of the library.


"They go together like--"
"Can the wisecracks. I work here."
"Security?"
She gives me a sharp look. "Librarian."
"So where did your interest in bikes come from? Your
husband?"
"He owns a body shop."
"A mechanic. It figures."
"I never pictured you sleeping with stereotypes, especially
stale, old impotent ones." She looks at the Duke, standing there

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resolutely silent, and she squares her shoulders like she's ready to
kill me if I say the wrong thing. I take my cue from the Duke and opt
for silence, then I get us mobile.
"Kary's a doctor," she continues. "He owns the Karing
Aesthetic Chateau for Men. The fool thing is, he started out doing
hair plugs, but a lot of the guys told him about how all their hair is
growing in the wrong places. So he branched out to hair removal.
Now the Chateau gives the full treatment, facials, peels, the works."
She jabs my ribs as they shake from laughter. "Go ahead and
laugh, hon, but Kar always gets the last laugh. All the way to the
flippin' bank. Hang a left."
"There's no turn here, Lulie."
"What'cha call this?" she says, leaning into the entrance to
the Rainbow Mountain Ice Cream Emporium.
We swerve the Duke up to the black and white facade of the
Emporium and park under a foolhardy poplar still clinging onto its
handsome foliage. After a quick trip inside, I sit down on the Duke
and nibble on an ice-cream sandwich that looks and tastes like a
postage stamp, while my eyes feast on Lulie's triple-rippled,
double-dipped chocolate ice-cream cone.
"You really going to eat all that?" I ask, feeling like a pig just
looking at her.
"I came bucking out of the politically incorrect chute on a
farm in Saskatchewan. Yessirree. 'Cause I was born to take what I
want from life, no ands, ifs or buts. Don't believe in denying myself
anything that fate will deny me given half a chance. Not me." She
licks the cone, and half of the second scoop disappears. "I haven't
got time for those dad-gummed sludges who trudge back and forth
to jobs they can't stand, with their shitty little dreams of winning one
of those house lotteries. They never win a darned thing, but they
get all orgasmic at the thought of paying to lust after a crummy
house that's the wrong color, style and size for them. That makes
about as much sense as climbing a mountain to seize the wrong
end of the darned stick just to hit yourself over the head with it."
"Hold that thought, I'm going to get another one of these," I
say, downing the last of the sandwich.
I come out with two of them.
"And every time without fail the real winner of the lottery
is…." She pauses to lick her lips as the last of the cone disappears.
"The dude who donated the house. He gets a tax write-off and free
advertising. Suckers just never seem to give themselves an even
break."
"All that from an ice-cream cone. Guess I'll have to wait to
see you eat a seven course meal before I'll find out what you really
think."

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She laughs, while I try to whitewash images of Nevar eating


a double-dipped cone. But the whitewash only makes the images
glow.
"Think I'll try to get hold of Fitz again," I say, talking over the
lewd sounds Nevar is making in my head. Or is that my heart? Lulie
stares at me like I'm holding a tripple-dipped cone up to my ear.
"He's not answering." I drop the cell into my jacket pocket. "Why
isn't he responding to my messages? That's what I'd like to know."
Something's up with him. Something I think I'd rather not know
about. "Listen, Lulie, I have a tea I'm late for. Mind giving me a ride
up to the boondocks past the university?" She hesitates. "I have my
bike parked there, so I--"
"You have a bike?"
"Bicycle." Oh that again, her face says. "Go ahead and
sneer, but that sucker can get me from there to Fitz's place in 14
minutes flat. In the rain yet."
"Nuts to the bicycle. The Duke'll get you there in 10, or my
name's not Big Lulu."
"So when I want you to do me a favor, all I have to say is,
'Open sesame,' and pronounce it F-I-T-Z?" She pats the saddle,
and I hop onto the driver's seat. "What's this thing you have about
him, anyway?"
"Well, hon, you're contorting yourself into an overcooked
pretzel to get a new derailleur for some dude whose name isn't
pronounced F-I-T-Z."
Easing out of the parking lot, I do a shoulder check and
glimpse a black SUV turning the corner behind us. Dan?! Can't be.
Fruk! And that looks like Maldoon tailing him. I lose sight of both of
them in the traffic maze.
"Shit, shoot, sh--"
"What's giving you a hairy?" Lulie asks.
"I thought I recognized the guy in the black SUV and--"
"That cager was a woman. A blond."
Myrtle?

We arrive at Mabie-Toogod's in time to watch her pour the


cold tea down the drain. She's not exactly the picture of
domesticity, standing at the sink in her full-length red gown; spiked,
fluorescent-red hair; needle-pointed, clear plastic stiletto shoes and
her inch-long black nails with silver flecks.
"I'll make a fresh pot," she says to Lulie and I standing
sheepishly by the kitchen doorway.
"Did she say something, or did she cough?" Lulie whispers. I
elbow her to shush.
The professor's voice takes some getting used to, because it
always sounds scratchy like she's trying to relieve an itch in her

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throat. She stares at us through her purple plastic,


diamond-studded glasses and holds up the china teapot.
"Uh, we'll have to pass," I say.
"Make yourself comfortable in the living room. I'll be right
there," Mabie-Toogod says, washing the pot. It's beyond me how
she manages to use her hands at all with those black claws. Like
how does she get her clothes on and off without mauling herself?
Or scratch her nose without impaling herself?
"She has to be joshing about getting comfortable in this
place," Lulie whispers as I sit down in the living room on a sofa with
a claustrophobic heaven tapistried on the back. Her eyes try to take
in the meticulous clutter of the Victorian decor. She looks aghast at
the row upon row of ornately framed art hiding the floral wallpaper
above knee-high chair rails. I motion her to sit down, and she points
to the red leather chair beside her. Propped up against the back is
a hunting painting of dogs relishing their kill. And a porcelain doll
with big, bright, expressive dead eyes, is using the landscape as a
backdrop.
Lulie looks at me like she doesn't have room to breathe.
Then she wanders across the room and peers through the beveled
glass in a black lacquered cabinet that looks like it's sprouting china
and other knickknacks from seeds planted in the Victorian era.
"And what's this?" she says. Her voice is strange, like she
doesn't want to believe what she's seeing. She tries opening one of
the doors. "Locked."
"Yeah, because she found out the hard way that no one can
go for more than a couple of minutes without finding something so
interesting they just have to touch it. But if you want to get out of
here before next week, don't say a word about any of her
collection," I suggest.
"A week?! In a pig's eye! Betcha there are people still
wandering around in the other rooms from the tours they started
last year." She twirls a finger around her ear then up in the air.
"Geeeezz! She's got the ceiling covered too."
"Laugh all you want, but she's got a collection of old books in
her den. And as soon as you catch sight of them, you'll break
through the glass with your bare hands to grab them."
"Funny you should say that, 'cause I was just going to ask
you if the old duffer would notice if I forced open this cabi--"
"Before I forget," Mabie-Toogod says, joining us. "Chanlee's
been phoning with alarming frequency, attempting to contact you."
Good. I hope my stilettos are killing her. Think I'll let her track
a few more miles in them before I give her a shout.
"How's the research progressing with Al?" Mabie-Toogod
asks and motions Lulie to sit on an armless chair about a foot high.

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I try not to laugh as Lulie sits down with her knees grazing
her chin. She doesn't seem to mind, though, because she's staring
at Mabie-Toogod as though the professor's one of the curiosities in
the room she just has to touch.
"Difficult to say," I reply, "because I'm not sure he knows
where he's going with his project. Where'd he get his credentials,
do you know?"
"Everywhere that counts for anything these days,"
Mabie-Toogod says. She begins dusting her Japanese china
collection with a chamois.
Lulie leans forward like she's having trouble separating the
scratching from the coughs.
"Can you be more specific?" I say. "I'm curious because he
thinks Apollodorus is a god."
"You think that if his scholarship in classical mythology is
faulty, then his expertise on Caravaggio is tainted? Or fraudulent,
perhaps?" Mabie-Toogod says, staring lovingly at the obsessively
ornate grey pot she's dusting. I don't say anything because I can
tell from her pedantic tone that she expects me to shut up and
listen. "True scholarship entails--albeit with unrivaled
acumen--intense scrutiny and articulation that effectuates a certain
narrowness of focus."
"Like with yourself? That's just it. You've devoted most of
your life to studying Baroque paintings, and yet you know who
Diodorus Siculus is."
"I wouldn't be so assiduous in retaining such hoary details if I
didn't deem it efficacious to instruct in order to facilitate my
research."
"Sure you would, because you need to know as much as you
can for your research."
She smiles like she's about to share a secret and tugs on an
earlobe, stretched, I suppose, from years of dangling what looks
like car parts from her ears. "You're fairly well versed in
Renaissance art, Rane. How's your knowledge of Apsaras?"
"Hindu goddess of paradise, who--" I say.
"Indara?" she asks.
"Another Hindu goddess?" Lulie volunteers.
"Another name for the Ch'an painter Yin-t'o-lo," I say. "How
about Bultaco Sherpa?"
Mabie-Toogod looks stumped, but Lulie says, "Now we're
talking real gods." Mabie-Toogod stares at her. "Stellar resident in
the pantheon of trial bikes."
Looking more mystified than ever, Mabie-Toogod says,
"Which underscores my point that if one is a Caravaggio scholar, it
doesn't necessarily follow that he or she, as the case may be, is an
expert on anything else."

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"I take it he's only a visiting lecturer this semester?" I ask.


"He's not associated with the university," Mabie-Toogod
says.
"But I thought…Then he's here in town to pick your brain?"
"That's a question predicated on a dubious assumption."
"No, it's based on the fact that you recommended me for the
job as his research assistant."
"That I did, but only because I'm cognizant of your work. I
observed an ad on the employment board outside the department
office, and I contacted him to ascertain whether I was correct in
surmising he was seeking a researcher with your abilities."
"Oh." Now that's interesting. About as interesting as all the
rest of the useless details cluttering my life lately.
Lulie stands up. "Sorry, but I won't be able to give you a lift if
we stay much longer."
"Another time, then," Mabie-Toogod says, walking around us
and at least a hundred other things to the front door. "Tomorrow
evening's good for me."
I nod. "Mind if I leave my bike--my bicyle--here a couple
more days? Fitz is expecting me," I say. "Before I go, how's Frank?
In Stade?"
"Get a move on," Lulie says in my ear as she pushes me out
the doorway, "before Frankenstein arrives."
"He's at Fermi, splitting infinitives in lieu of atoms,"
Mabie-Toogod says, waving us off with her chamois.

"You can have your sweetheart back," I say to Lulie as I


dismount from the Duke in front of Fitz's house.
She hops off the bike and follows me up the stairs leading to
the Philip Johnson style house. "I didn't go into the bride of
Frankenstein's love nest and the rest of it just to kiss the Duke. How
long have you known the creepy old bird, anyhow?"
"Creepy?"
"A refreshing change from the dead men you're used to
conversing with, I'm sure, but--"
"Never mind. I've known her since May when she hired me
as a research assistant. Why?"
"Just curious," she says with a shrug.
I peer past a swaying willow obscuring the glass walls. Frank
Lloyd Wright would totally understand why Fitz likes to leave his
helmet on.
Not a hat in sight.
"Damn. He's not here. Guess I'll have to leave him a
message," I say, eyeing a good-sized rock in the frostbitten flower
bed. Where the hell are you, Fitz? "Got anything I can write on?" As
she unzips her jacket, I hear the faint roar of a bike. "Forget it, he's

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here." It sounds like he's coming around the front. Strange,


because the garage is at the back. But sure enough his bike
cruises up to the curb behind a straggly Saskatoon bush. "Come
on, Lulie, you're not going to get that kiss by standing here
gawking!" I grab hold of her arm, and we skip down the stairs.
All the way to hell.
I fume at the sight of Fitz lost in the bliss of holding the waist
of a woman who takes off her helmet and shakes her long hair in
his face. I run back up the stairs, grab the rock in the flower bed
and charge at Fitz. Correctly reading the smoke signals coming
from me, the woman veers out of the way. Fitz sees me just as I
clank him on the helmet with the rock.
He jumps up off the spanking new Kawasaki. "What the hell
was that for?" Noticing Lulie, he says with a tainted smile, "Well, I'll
be, if it isn't the Mighty Fine. What brings you to these parts?" He
takes off his helmet, grimaces at it and says, "Rane! You--!"
"Shut up!" I yell. "What was this bimbo doing on your
precious bike? Huh, Fitz, you lying, two-faced, two-timing--" Words
don't cut it. I kick the bike, and the crashing noise finishes my
statement with the right kind of punch. "Come on, Lulie." I gesture
her to follow as I stomp off to the Duke. She kills the wind in my
sails by staying put.
"Want to explain what's got her nose out of joint?" Fitz says
with rather convincing desperation, considering he's faking. "This is
a long way from the dirt tracks, Lulie. I take it the craziness going
on here has something to do with you."
"Well, Fitz, er…," Lulie says, looking torn about which way to
go. Her gaze settles on his motorcycle partner, who stares at the
fallen bike with an air of amusement.
"Crazy?! Who you calling crazy?" I say, storming up to him.
"It would never occur to you to look to yourself for the source of
your problems."
"Then what's Big Lulu doing here?"
"Big Lulu?!" the bimbo giggles and tosses around her long,
very blond hair that hasn't quite fused into doll plastic. The leather
she's wearing must really like her because it's melted onto her skin.
Her tittering gives a semblance of character to a fashionably
vacuous face trying to get undeserved attention by being made up
to look like everyone else's.
"Good question, Fitz, what is she doing here?" I point to his
riding partner who smothers her giggles with a retarded Cheshire
cat grin.
He seems content to avoid answering my question, so I add
loudly and sharply, "You said you don't ride the fender for anyone,
absolutely no one, but you'd make an exception for me if I learned
how to ride. So how come she gets to ride you, huh, Fitz?"

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"Oh, that!" he says, sounding relieved. But the tension


knotting his brow deepens.
Turning to Lulie, I yell, "Want to know what it feels like to be
Fitz's girl? Ask her." She watches her nails grow, while Lulie and I
eye her. I lower my voice a tad. "What's she doing in our
relationship, huh, Fitz?"
"I waited for you all morning. You could have at least called,
or--"
I stick my hand inside his jacket, pull out his cell and shove it
in his face. "I've been trying to get hold of you all day, but you've
been too busy bimbo-baiting."
"There aren't any messages from you," he says. Then he
looks into my eyes and says quietly, "Where were you last night,
Rane?"
"At my apartment. I saw you spying on me this morning."
"I never spied on you. All I did was phone you, over and
over. Fool me."
"Like hell you did, uh, didn't--Have you been calling my cell?"
"No, because I found out yesterday that Chanlee has it. I've
been leaving messages on your machine."
"Like hell you have."
Nevar's cell buzzes. I grab it, see Nevar's name on the
display and yell into the receiver, "Screw off, Snow White!"
Fitz stares at the phone and keeps staring at the pocket I
drop it in. "Who were you with last night, Rane?" His voice drops to
a fading whisper as he speaks.
"See? You've been spying on me."
He blinks then jerks his head back like I slapped his face,
while a door slams in my mind. Fruk, I just shot myself in the foot.
Hell, the way my body feels, I'd say that's the only part I missed.
Staring down at the ground, I think of the maggots infesting my
answering machine. "I believe you about the messages," I say
trying to be conciliatory. But my words come out sounding
hard-edged and resentful.
"And I believe you about him." I look up, and the hurt in his
eyes stings mine. "Ah well, you're cutting loose for Italy."
His sadness envelops me. "Who told you about Italy?" He
looks away. "My mother, obviously." Still looking away, he shakes
his head. "Don't tell me Chanlee told you?" He continues to shake
his head. "So you've known how long now, and you haven't said
anything?"
"I never said anything because until now I never believed
you'd go."
"Really?" I hike a thumb over my shoulder at his riding
partner. "She was straddling your equipment when you still had
yourself believing I was here for good. So tell me, Fitz, what does

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fidelity mean to you? That it doesn't count when you screw around,
only when I do? Well, screw you."
I let out a long sigh that leaves me feeling empty, and I hold
out his cell. He takes it like it's anything but an empty gesture.
"Thanks, but I've already got the message," he says. His
voice is strained with emotion, yet he makes the words sound cold
and hard.
Obviously, he thinks I've let him down. Hell, the cosmos lets
me down everyday by refusing to accede to my demands, and I still
haven't got the message. What makes him so certain?
Besides arrogance.
I could say that I haven't been thinking straight since the
psychos hemmed in my thoughts with bullets. I could say a
thousand other things. But they'd all be lies because although I still
don't know what last night was all about, I know I was kissing my
relationship with Fitz good-bye. Without meaning to. What do
unintentional good-byes mean, anyway?
We avoid each other with our eyes and watch Lulie lifting his
bike. The silence is so icy, my bones start shaking. "Guess there
isn't anything more we can say without repeating ourselves," I say
without changing the temperature.
"Your car is road ready. I've made some changes."
"Yeah, and I haven't liked a single damned one of them."
He glances over my shoulder where his girl was standing,
but she's gone.
"Lose something?" I say to him.
"She was a buyer."
"Don't worry, she'll be back. You're still very much in
business."
He shrugs. "And you're still leaving for Italy."
He turns away, his walk deliberately slow enough for me to
overtake him. But something more than anger holds me back.
"I can drive myself home, Lulie," I say, suddenly feeling
exhausted.
"Sure thing," she says. "When you want another lesson--"
She stops, looks at Fitz ascending the stairs to his house, then
says, "Remember what I said about taking what you want. But it
does B-all for your taste for life when all you really like is plain
vanilla. If you know what I mean, hon."
Who's she calling vanilla? Me or Dan?
"Don't think I do, Lulie, but the only ice cream I can't say no
to is Spumoni."
"I see," she says and stares at me like she's reading the
future in my eyes. Instead of telling me what she sees, though, she
gives me a cryptic smile. All this interest, and I didn't have to say
the word Fitz. Not out loud, anyway.

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He's right. This situation is crazy. Like this whole day has
been. No Watcher, no Hiker. Something's wrong, or I'd be tasting
bullets right now.

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CHAPTER 12

Following Fitz's footsteps to the garage, all I find is the ugly yellow
propane. He's nowhere in sight. Fine. I don't need him or his
permission. Not for anything. Not to be myself, not to live my life.
But what about our life? Ah, I don't feel like wrestling the demons
between us just so he can unload more guilt on me. For what?
Because I want to follow my heart to Italy?! And I do mean heart,
because my work is at the heart of who I am.
Suppose I should drive over to Chanlee's. Then again,
there's no percentage in getting close enough to let her bite my
head off. Hell, the mood I'm in, it'd be a toss up who'd win at being
low, mean and dirty. Think I'll just let her sleep it off. From a
distance.
I head for my perfect little hellhole at the Doré.
This propane brute has to be the ugliest car I've ever seen,
but it rides sure and easy like it's trying to pamper me into believing
I can make my dreams come true. If I ever get enough time to
dream again. My ugly friend slides like a dream into my stall. Dan's
stall is empty. Good ol' Dan. He knows I'd rather scrub my floors
than entertain Myrtle. If he weren't thinking with his small head, he'd
rather scrub my floors than entertain her. Yeah, I've seen them
together, but I just don't see them together. Strange, but when I'm
away from him, his image is super sharp in my mind but my
feelings are faint. So faint, I'd have to rack my head and heart to
find a pulse.
Where's the Watcher? I can't see any shadows that look like
they'd spring to life and kill me if I approached them. I take a few
steps forward then stop. There are only about twenty steps
between me and the Doré. Doesn't Fitz know how many steps there
are between here and Italy? How many realities there are to
explore between him and me? He's willing to turn his back on both
of us because he's certain I don't love him. But that certain? Love
makes us so frukin' dumb. I know him. Right now he's feeling like I
slammed him with that rock without his helmet on. Lulie said that
she gets through life by taking what she wants. If I don't go back
and take Fitz into my arms, our relationship will die.
For certain.
In death, what's left to take?
I walk back to the car then stop. Can't very well go to work
tomorrow in these clothes. I turn back then stop again. My bedroom

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window is lit up! No dastardly prick of a light for the psychos


anymore. They're getting so comfortable and cocky in my
apartment that they just walk in and turn on the lights. I race inside
and climb up the stairs because I don't want the intruders to hear
the elevator. Damn! I should have taken my cue from Mr McPickles
and scaled the wall to the balcony. On the fourth I find my
apartment door slightly ajar.
I hesitate before opening it. Whoever's in there has shut off
the lights.
If it's the Hiker, he won't think twice about shooting me at
point blank range. I grip onto Nevar's cell. Hope I don't have to use
it on anyone's head, I haven't had time to copy out the call list. With
as much stealth as I can, I push open the door, and in the
darkness, the scent of him hits me.
Nevar?!
I bolt inside but the only trace of him is in my bedroom. The
window is closed tightly, but it's unlocked. I peer outside. He's
gone. Damn. I knew I should have tried coming up through the
balcony. Yes, just as I've known all along that he's the purveyor of
the evil overtaking my life. Without slowing down to grab a change
of clothes for tomorrow, I tear after him. It's scary thinking about
what a sicko he is, but it's even scarier thinking about what he'll do
to me and kids like Kenny if I don't put him out of action. And
something too scary to think about is that he's so crazy he thinks
he's normal, yet I had sex with him. Which means that I'm even
crazier than he is. I'd better stop him dead in his tracks before I
become totally deranged.
Outside, I watch my step and look out for him. A cold, smoky
wind carrying the remnants of a fire, ruffles my hair. Other than that,
everything appears to be as it should be. Yeah, nice and normal
like Nevar. He's disappeared, but he can't hide from me. Sooner or
later he'll turn up at his world class, luxury hellhole in Belavista.
As soon as I turn the car out of the alley onto the street, a
dark sedan swings into line behind me. A couple blocks down the
road, the sedan is still riding my tail.
Praying that I'm giving myself enough lead-time, I swerve
into the oncoming lane. The driver at the wheel of the sedan is
definitely Nevar. Without wasting time to breathe, I brake and
swerve back into the right lane behind him. Whew, good thing Fitz
installed a rocket launcher in this ugly brute, or I'd be chirping in
heaven. While the driver of the oncoming car gives me the finger,
Nevar smiles at me in his rearview and tops off his insolence with a
friendly wave. I give the smiling devil an equally friendly push with
my bumper. Not as hard as I'd like to, though, because I don't have
a plate or any papers for Brutus.

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A few blocks from his Belavista home, he speeds ahead with


his eyes looking backwards. Without warning him with a signal, I
hang a right. Burning rubber, I circle around and shift into park in
front of his driveway. Without killing the engine, I get out, lean back
against the door and wait. There's no way I'm going to be alone
with him without the world watching. The smiling fool cruises by,
flips a U-ee and stops headlight to headlight with my yellow brute.
As his shadow steps into the car lights, I press the bottom of my
boot against the door, ready to kick any part of him reckless
enough to come within striking distance. He stops short, but his
smile is nothing short of an invitation to another black eye.
"Well, well, if it isn't Bambi. If you back up, I'll go first," he
says, pointing to the driveway. I shake my head. "What point are
you trying to make by getting towed away? You need a permit to
park on this street."
"Nevar, I'm not here to listen to you spewing more of your
damned subterfuge. What were you doing in my apartment?"
"I was looking for my cell."
"Sure you were. That's why you phoned me. What were you
doing in my apartment?"
"After I discovered it wasn't in your apartment--"
"What were you doing breaking into my home?"
"--I tried phoning the cell. I didn't break in, the door was
unlocked."
"You think you can beat the truth by lying? You're dreaming,
Snow White." I push myself off from the door and lock eyes with
him. "One of your thugs tipped you off I called Tildy."
"She's not clairvoyant."
"Why did you break--" He's right. I never tipped her off who
was calling. "Okay, so you tipped her off." He shakes his head,
actually looking believable. The trouble with lies is that the only
thing separating them from the real thing is the truth. And belief
doesn't need the truth. "Never mind the cell. It's not the real reason
you broke into my home."
"I was looking for you--"
"Nothing but the truth, Nevar."
"I'd like to say there's no harm in being with me, but in truth, I
can't." He stops like there's nothing left to say. I motion with my
fingers for him to keep talking, and he gives me a well, that's it look
with the sorriest excuse for a smile I've ever seen. I glare at him
and my protracted sigh feels like anger sizzling.
"I went inside," he resumes, "to retrieve something I found
there yesterday."
"So hand it over." I hold out my hand. He shakes his head. I
glance at the car.
"It's not in my car."

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"You passed it onto the Watcher."


"If you mean Jake Hulladin, yes."
"I see, you have the police in your pocket. So for all intents
and purposes what you stole from me never existed."
"What I took didn't belong to you."
"Oh." I pause to give my surprise time to revert back to
suspicion. "You're always dancing around the truth. What did you
take?"
"It's safer for you if you don't know that at this point."
"Screw you, Nevar!" I fold my arms, unfold them then poke
his chest repeatedly with my apartment keys fisted in my hand.
"You said that like you actually expect me to be grateful that you're
trying to keep me ignorant so you know what I'm doing, but I don't.
And that's going to keep me safe?!" I grab the front of his jacket.
"Don't do that, Rane. What you're feeling this close to me is
making me crazy." His gaze is unclouded with anything resembling
sanity, yet he knows I'm fighting like crazy to keep myself from
getting tangled up in another emotional chute-the-chute with him.
Or is he guessing?
"Want to know how I really feel about you? Everything I'd like
to do to you is illegal. Get it?"
He takes a deep breath, drops his head back and laughs like
he actually means it. I let go of his jacket, and he teeters back. All it
would take is a sissy shove, and he'd be cracking his head open on
the asphalt.
He rights himself.
"This is no place for crazy talk like that," he says with a
sarcastic smile. "Let's go inside, and you can show me what you
mean, and I'll show you if I get it."
"Will your wife be joining in the fun and games?"
"You've got my cell. Ask her--if you're into decorated
skeletons. But don't get too excited by the prospect, she hasn't
noticed yet that there's anyone else in the universe besides
herself."
"This is how you talk about the woman you love?! Charming.
Why are you smiling? Being a dickhead is something worth smiling
about?"
"I wouldn't know. But I like the way you keep bringing love
into the conversation."
"Nevar, shut up!" I stomp on his foot, but his self-satisfied
expression only intensifies because he's wearing steel-toed shoes.
He came prepared to rumble. All this for little ol' me? "Where is she,
anyway?"
"In your pocket."

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I take the cell out of my jacket and hold it out to him. He


reaches for it, but I yank it away. "You're dreaming if you think
you're getting this without returning mine."
"I don't have yours."
"What's it going to take to get the truth out of you, huh, Snow
White?"
"Depends what kind of truth you're after."
"Even though you like to believe that the truth is something
we make up as we go, it isn't negotiable, Nevar. Not in this reality."
He points to the house and takes hold of my elbow.
I twist out of his grip and shove my face into his. "Since I met
you, I've been in the dark, walking a tightrope that's going around in
an ever tightening circle. So far, I haven't figured out a whole
helluva lot, but your sick game is going to be over as soon as I
figure out how it benefits you to keep me walking that rope."
He grips my elbow again, this time too tightly for me to get
free without engaging him in combat. "The real games await
inside," he says in my ear and locks his arms around my waist. "My
chessboard is already set up."
"You don't say? Well, you don't want to play with me." I
almost chuckle at my mistake, but I'm choking on the desire to blast
out of his grip. "I'm a lousy loser and an even worse winner."
"Kenny Hironaka," he coos in my ear. I snap my head back
to see his face. He pushes me with one hand and I fall back, but he
grabs me by the front of my jacket. "Two can play your game," he
says like his jaw is locked but something came undone inside him.
"What's happening to Kenny and you isn't a game."
I freeze in his grip then go limp without taking my gaze off
him. "Kenny and me?"
He lets go of my jacket but secures me by the waist.
"Someone has kidnapped Kenny, and you have people shooting at
you."
"That's not what you meant. And you used the present
tense, so you know that Kenny's still alive. I'll bet no one else on
this planet knows as much about what's happening to me and
Kenny as you. How is it you know so much, huh, Nevar?"
"We think we know who's got him, but we don't know where
he is. Come inside, and I'll explain."
"Says the cat to the mouse. And you say this isn't a game," I
scoff. If he's paying attention at all, he's hearing my saber rattling.
He follows me as I walk around the car. "However much you dick
around with the truth, I'm never going to be your mouse or anyone
else's. I'll kill you first, Nevar. Believe it." I open the door.
He kicks it shut before I can escape inside. "I believe it. Why
do you think I haven't kept you abreast of what's going on? I know
what you'll do to him when--"

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"Him?!" I snort. "You'd be surprised how much I can see


from behind the eightball. From the moment I laid eyes on you, I
knew you were too taken with yourself to love anyone or anything
but the devil. The only reason you're still alive is that I can't make a
dead rat sing." He places a consoling hand on my shoulder. One of
us is missing the point. "Get your hand off me." My glacial stare
freezes my whole body. His gaze drops along with his hand. I
shudder at the thought of being touched by a nihilist who mocks me
and everything else in the universe with his disbelief. "Now get out
of my way."
He stands his ground. "Bambi, I'll tell you what you want to
know if you come inside."
"What did you call me?" I say with enough contained rage to
fuel an all-out war.
He steps aside.

Brutus screeches into the parking lot at the Doré. Nevar's


cell buzzes against my heart. I shut it off.
Dan's SUV is still gone. Damn. I could use his help to corner
the Watcher. Where is the damned fiend, anyway? I know he's
here. In his sneering, superior way, Nevar told me that much. I
search fruitlessly in the garbage bin and everything else big enough
to hold a viper, then head for my apartment. The only thing that
Nevar said that wasn't unmitigated bull was his boast that he stole
something from right under my nose. Something I should have
found and safeguarded before he got to it. At least now I know why
he toyed with me last night and wouldn't leave.
In the bathroom, I turn off the valves under the sink and
unscrew the trap to see if Nevar left any hints of what he was hiding
inside it. Nothing. I climb onto the vanity and unscrew the fan cover.
Nothing but a dusty fan. I move onto the bedroom.
Oh hell.
The mattress and sheets are on the floor right where I left
them, but the blanket he was wearing is folded neatly by the pillow.
I rip apart the whole shebang and stuff it into the laundry hamper in
the bathroom. The scent of him fills me with horror. I dump the
hamper on the tile floor and something makes a clunking noise as it
lands. So he missed something. I never thought I'd live to see the
day when a clunk would be the high point of my day. I rummage
through the heap. What?! Nothing but dirty laundry. I search each
item. It wasn't this tube dress Chanlee threw in here. She'd better
hope these stains come out, because if they don't, she's going to
have to fork out a bundle for a new dress. I bought this boob tube in
Italy. I'm especially partial to it because I like the way Fitz looks at
me when I wear it. But he's never felt this one caress his skin. How
did the creeps manage to find one so much like mine? Even the

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hem has been mended in the same place. Hold on, hold it just a
cotton pickin' minute. I sealed a lock of Fitz's hair inside. I grab a
pair of manicure scissors and rip the hem open.
Hot damn! This is my dress.
I stare at the golden strands in my hand. Another
meaningless detail?
No.
Nothing about Fitz is meaningless. And he belongs. This
dress doesn't. It doesn't belong because it's the only damned thing
that's really mine.
Feeling as low and sullied as the laundry, I resume my
search for the clunker, and voilà there's something in the pocket of
my housecoat. My cell. Dead as a door nail and even more
useless. I've got messages, but the damned thing won't give them
to me until I feed it. But why would Nevar plant it in my dirty
laundry? I run my fingers over the keypad. Because he didn't. I
threw my robe in the hamper after my shower. So he was telling the
truth. And I wasn't. Which reminds me, I should check my
answering machine.
The display says I have three messages. Fitz's, no doubt.
"Name the place," Nevar's voice says before I send it to
oblivion. Anything to please you, Snow White.
The next two are from my mom. First she leaves a gentle
reminder that she expects Nevar and I for dinner at 6:00. Then she
calls back and demands to know if I'm all right before she tears a
strip off me for standing her up. No messages from Fitz. Someone's
been tampering with my machine again.
Nevar, you're going to tamper your way into the hell of MY
choice.
Now for some tampering of my own. There must be
someone on his cell besides his wife. The first number on his call
list is an Erns Bilkovitch & Associates. The next is a number without
a name. Ditto for the rest. The phone book says Bilkovitch is a
lawyer. It figures. I'll pay him a visit tomorrow. But to really get the
lowdown on the others, I need Chanlee's help.
Why hasn't she called me, anyway? I miss the bum.
A make up call wouldn't hurt. I key in her number, but she
doesn't pick up. I think she just saved me from getting my head
zapped off. I'll catch her so early tomorrow, she'll think I'm a bird
singing.
I stare and stare at my answering machine. The truth is
buried in there somewhere. Whose message was erased the first
time? And what was so dangerous about the message? If only I
could think of the right questions, I'd find out why Fitz's messages
are being singled out for obliteration. Nevar….He doesn't ask many
questions. No, that's not quite right. He stopped asking them

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after…after Chanlee tipped him off about the painting. No. The last
time he expressed an interest in picking our brains was when we
were chasing the woman in the red hat. But he didn't ask anything
he'd need to know if he really wanted to find her. What was he
really asking? In his inimitable psychotic way, he's too subtle to
feign curiosity to throw us off her scent. He had to have noticed as I
did, that Chanlee said this woman walked like she was arthritic, but
she outran us all. I'll have to ask Chanlee more about her.
Hell, Monday isn't even here yet, and it's already used up,
gone. If I ever make it that far. Nevar has other ideas for me, I'm
sure. Like adorning me with an extra bellybutton made of lead.
Chanlee and Nevar. Fruk. I think I know why she's not
answering her phone.
The gods just laugh at us when we're right. I'd rather be
wrong.

By the spruce on Belisaire, my footsteps disturb the


pervasive quiet ordered by the gods to ensure that none of the big
noises around here has a fitful sleep. Even the wind blows more
softly here. Amazing what money can buy. Through a shrub
partially blocking my view, I see his car parked in the driveway.
Shit, shoot, shite!
It's not his car, it's Chanlee's. I rub my eyes then let my
hands slide down over my mouth. She didn't?! She just can't be
that much of a two-faced, back-stabbing heap of dung.
I march around to the back of the house. If she really is in
there with him, the only way I'll ever talk to her again is the way my
answering machine talks to me.
Now it's her turn to get a nasty surprise.
While I'm assessing his house to find the quietest way to
break in, my rage runs out of steam. She didn't seek him out. She's
another mouse for him to play with. He's doing a number on both of
us. If there's anyone in this world who deserves to be disturbed in
this ever so respectable quietude, it's Snow White.
"Nevar!" I holler and kick the door.
Suddenly, something hard strikes the side of my thigh. I turn
sharply in the direction of the driveway. If I believe my eyes, a ghost
pelted me. I tear around the corner, down the driveway and onto
the street. Which way to go? I'm the only one on the street.
A shadow flits in and out of sight around the side of my car.
I race to the car, and the Hiker springs out from behind it and
runs like hell down the hill. I stop just past the car instead of busting
a gut tearing after him. He'll mow me down in his waiting car if I try
to catch him. Besides, he's not running away from me, he's running
away from my car. He threw a pebble or whatever at me to get my
attention so I would find him skulking around my car. I walk slowly

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around it, feeling cautiously under the fenders and bumpers.


Nothing amiss. Then I check the doors. They're locked. I take a
deep breath, but the tightness in my chest increases. Somewhere
in this car there's a message for me. A small detail rigged to reduce
me to nothing in a split second. I step away and look hard at
Brutus.
Fitz knows you intimately. Inside and out.
Walking back to the house, I pull out Nevar's cell and key in
Fitz's number. The phone doesn't ring at his end, though, because
something inside me shuts down and the cell with it. Nothing Fitz
and I can say to each other over the phone can equal one shared
glance.
I ring Nevar's front doorbell enough times to sound the death
knell to his fun and games. No one answers. They're lying low.
Lower than I'd ever go. But in the ensuing silence there is an
understanding. Neither of them can hide from my knowing.
Guess this means I can take your car, huh, Chanlee?
Inside her car, I gaze at the house, so content in its silence.
But with each second that passes, my unease multiplies. A man's
life was brutally taken from him inside that silence. And the
footprints of his murderers linger there. Ever silent.
Screw that.
I'll be damned if I'm going to let his death remain another
meaningless detail.
Chanlee, you idiot! I have to get you out of there.
But first I have to rouse Fitz from his misbegotten slumber.
"Let there be a light," I say aloud as I approach his house. When he
leaves the light on in the foyer, it means he's expecting me.

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CHAPTER 13

A light glints through his neighbor's tree, and I smile, not simply in
relief but in gratitude. Walking up the path to his house, I have to
quiet my heart that's trying to leap forward to bridge the distance
between my hopes and doubts. Fitz said that Nevar is one of his
customers, and I need to know how much he actually knows about
this customer from hell. But what kind of idiot barges in on her lover
while he's asleep, to ask him about the guy she slept with last
night? I come to a standstill in the light reaching out to me from the
foyer, and rain begins to fall. A gentle reminder that there's no need
to cry, because the heavens are doing it for me.
The front door opens and Fitz steps out wearing his leathers.
Shadow though he is, the black leather lights up everything in and
around me. Before he has time to pick up where he left off or to
negotiate, I take hold of him.
"I'd love your help," I say, my lips pressed against his cheek
and my voice rough but laced with the sounds of my heart
pounding.
He pulls back his head to look at me, and his face,
everything he is in my eyes says, "I know." And his lips say it again
and again.
"You don't have your helmet on," we say together, catching
the spark in each other's words.
Then without the slightest prompting from me, he makes
tracks for Chanlee's car and slides into the passenger seat. He
knows that time and everything else that makes life possible is of
the essence. Hot damn it feels good to be home.
"We're not going to get far without gas," he says, tapping the
gauge.
Taking a few shortcuts, I get both him and the car up to
speed. And while I'm detouring at a gas station, he arranges to
have some of his guys meet us at Nevar's to check out my car.
"Chanlee's in hell right now, but she's having too much fun to
know it. Or care," I say after he puts his phone away.
"Fun? Nah. She phoned my office twice trying to reach you.
She was breathing so hard I only caught part of what she said, but
it sounded like she was trying to tell me someone was pursuing
you, and she needed some backup. When I tried calling her back, I
couldn't get through to her."

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Welcome to my world, Chanlee, and may you live long


enough to enjoy it.
"She was wearing my clothes."
Ah, his face says. "Does that have anything to do with her
second call about a hat fitting into the painting in the locker?"
"What kind of message is that? We already know the hat fits
into the painting in the locker."
We exchange stupefied glances.
"You must have missed something, Fitz. What were her
exact words?"
"Here," he says, pulling out his cell and holding it up to my
ear. "Check the message yourself."
"I believe you." I push the phone away. "Later, when we're in
bed, and I have time to think."
"Time to what?" He chuckles and runs a hand from the tip of
my nose down to my lap. My hands tighten around the steering
wheel to keep my thoughts from veering off the road.
"She wasn't the only one trying to get hold of you." He drops
his voice, making it resonate deeper inside me. "I left one message
after another on your machine and checked out every place I could
think of. But nothing doing. Then I figured I should stay put to let
you find me."
"My heart knows the way home. Well, that and I have a
built-in homing device that zeros in on blue-eyed devils in leather."
His smile stretches all the way to mine.
We lapse into silence with both of us waiting for me to get
around to the unspoken name niggling at us. I negotiate and
renegotiate with my internal censor about how much I'm going to
tell him about last night.
"Well, it looks like your guys beat us here," I say,
commenting as nonchalantly as I can on the trucks lining the street
at the bottom of Belisaire Place.
Fitz gives me a sneaky smile like he was inside my head
listening to every damned thing I was thinking. "Don't get too close."
Catching the point of his double-edged sword, I peer through
the windshield and say, "The rain has stopped." And I stop well
behind my car parked at the crest of the hill.
Amongst the crew packing up one instrument after another is
a thin man with striped pajamas sticking out from the bottom of his
coveralls. He stops petting a steely-eyed German shepherd that
looks like it's waiting for the opportune moment to tear his hand off.
He secures the dog's leash and approaches us. "No detonator. No
bomb," he says as Fitz gets out of the car.
"Sure it's clean, Jed?" Fitz asks.

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"Clean as a whistle," Jed says and stands up so straight he


gains a few inches on Fitz. "But we found this." He hands Fitz a
small plastic box.
"It looks like a spare key box," I say, taking it from Fitz.
Jed shakes his head. "No key. Some kind of computer chip."
"It's a key, all right," I say. "But beats me what it's supposed
to open." This is one of those times when getting the message isn't
enough. I have to know what to do with it, or at least where the hell
I'm supposed to deliver it. I turn the chip over in my hand then
glance up at Nevar's house, stately and proud in the darkness.
None of the houses around here are willing to shed any light on him
or anything else, but his house seems to be shadier than the rest.
Or is it simply that I know it steadfastly protects his evil delights
from the light of day? "Sure there's nothing trying to hitch a ride in
my car?" I say to Jed with a sharpness that causes Fitz to raise an
eyebrow.
"Not a darned thing," Jed says, making the words sound
ironclad. But not so ironclad that my nagging doubts can't blast
gaping holes in them. "We turned her on and she purred real sweet,
eh, though you might wanna fill 'er up before too long."
"It needs refueling?" Fitz asks suspiciously. Jed nods, and
Fitz turns to me. "I filled the tank myself. You've already logged that
many clicks?"
I shake my head and give him a questioning look, while he
looks at me with unwavering skepticism. "Then who--" he starts to
say then concludes the thought in silence as he glowers past me at
Nevar's place.
Jed's gaze follows Fitz's.
"You didn't by chance see any lights come on in that house,
did you Jed?" I ask, desperation creeping into my voice. Jed
shakes his head. "No one coming or going?"
"Nothing gets by Timber," Jed says, looking with pride at the
shepherd eyeing me suspiciously.
"Well then, thank you." I offer him my hand.
All this trouble over my car, and the only surprise is that
Jed's hands are uncalloused and silky soft, like he pampers them
obsessively with lotion.
He bows his head then Timber leads him in the direction of
the trucks.
"Nothing means nothing," Fitz says with a shrug that ends
abruptly as I slip an arm around his waist.
Heavy panting sounds rivet our attention on Timber. Jed
tries to restrain the dog going berserk over Chanlee's car.
Fitz and I glance at each other and say in tandem as we
back away, "The bomb?!"
"Find it!" Fitz shouts to everyone within hearing range.

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The two of us run up Nevar's driveway to the back of his


house. I grimace at the patio door we're going to have to smash
open to get inside. I feel like a sleazy dick crashing in to get seedy
photos of people having no-holds-barred illicit sex. The last thing I
want is a picture slinking around in my head of Chanlee practicing
her gymnastics with Nevar. But I understand her desire to be with
him. If only forbidden fruit didn't taste so…so much better than it is.
"The guys can get around the alarm, no problem," Fitz says.
"Screw that. It's time the world woke up to what a phony
bastard Nevar is." I step between him and the door. "Is there
anything about him I should know?"
"Such as?"
"Just how deranged is he? Enough to do Chanlee any--"
"Do who?"
"You knew him before I ever laid eyes on the jerk. You must
know something about him."
"Yeah, like what kind of car he bought and whether he used
debit or a credit card. Sugar, you could pay me a million bucks to
tell you the color of his eyes, but I couldn't do it because I don't give
a shit."
"Oh, never mind. Whatever we see inside, whatever
happens, promise me you'll let me deal with him."
"No," he says and sidekicks the door.
His answer shatters the quiet with flying glass. But his kick
isn't answered by an alarm blaring.
"Don't go in there," I say. "He's setting us up for--" I save my
breath because I'm talking to his shadow committing a crime as it
disappears into the house. I tiptoe behind him, feeling my way
through the dark.
Suddenly, the lights come on. "Pussy footing's for pussies
like Nevar," he says, charging towards the atrium.
"Ah, don't step there!" He freezes. "That's a man's grave."
I leap past him and over the space then dash through the
atrium to the stairs. On the way up, my stomach sinks because with
each step a sickening feeling swells up in me that Fitz and I are
alone in the house. For a flash of a second, I actually rejoice that
Chanlee's not here with Nevar, but sanity blasts that thought to hell.
She's still very much with him. So is Kenny, but not here.
"She's not here," I say, coming to a standstill on the stairs.
"He's taken her somewhere else."
He bounds past me as I turn around to go back down. On
the way out, I shut off the lights. With them on, we're the prey in a
game farm. I open the door and someone lunges in at me from the
deep shadow on my left. Over my dead body, you psycho piece of
shit! I thrust my elbow back and up into his neck and follow through
with hard and fast blows to his chest, then I swing back out of the

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way as he clutches his throat and doubles over with an animal


grunt that tapers off into heavy gasping. What's with this creep?!
He's acting like I caught him by surprise. He crumples to the
ground. Even the paper dummies I use for practice hold up better.
"Ready to talk now, or do you need more encouragement?" I say
grabbing him by the hair and yanking his head up. As I'm about to
tell him what I really think of him by kneeing him in the teeth, the
kitchen lights suddenly come on. I let go abruptly because instead
of seeing one of Nevar's thugs, I see Jed wincing at me. What he
wouldn't say to me if he could talk.
From inside the house Fitz says, "He's definitely not here.
Doesn't look to me like anyone lives here. I feel like I'm farting
around on some slick, la-di-dah magazine cover."
I try to take hold of Jed's arm to help him up, but he fends
me off. "I'm sorry, Jed," I say, my tone too edgy to be apologetic.
"But what the hell were you doing coming in at me like that?"
His answer is indecipherable through his labored breathing.
But a cigarette butt glowing red by my feet provides a more
comprehensible answer. He must have been having a smoke while
he waited for us to come out.
Fitz joins us. "Rane! You know what I've told you, 'No more
practicing on my men.'" Jed replies for both of us by grunting.
"What did you find, Jed?" He takes hold of Jed from the other side
and helps me hoist him up.
Jed shakes his head.
"Timber doesn't fake his orgasms," Fitz resumes. "Get both
cars to the shop and find out what's cranking him up. Rane and I
will take one of the trucks."
Jed nods, and I look through the darkness at Chanlee's face.
Wherever she is, I know she's having a grand time making a fool of
me. And tomorrow she'll call me from work to boast about how
good it was with him. With you as a friend, Chanlee, it sucks to be
me. So where are you, my friend? Your place? Not bloody likely, it's
way too obvious. Never mind that noise, her sex toys are there.
Everyone of them except Bruno.
Coming back to earth, I notice Fitz staring at me like he
actually knows where I've been. He's wrong. But if I try to correct
him, it'll only serve as fodder for his scurrilous thoughts that are
about as logical as love and infinitely less endearing.
"You thinking we should try Chanlee's?" he asks.
Know-it-all.

"I knew she wouldn't be here," I say after we've searched her
house. With Fitz behind me, I walk into her bedroom and stare at
the undisturbed silk throw covering the bed. "This place reeks of
bad chi. Totally reeks. And not just because she's missing with him.

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Something's been added." I look around the sparse, grid-like room.


"Something we'd run like hell from if we had any sense at all. For
the life of me I don't get why the gods haven't rained bullets down
on him."
Fitz rests his hands on my shoulders and says not all that
softly in my ear, "Is that what this is all about? You want to kill him
because he's two-timing you with Chanlee?"
I turn in fury and glare at him. "Why can't you just come out
and say what you really mean?" He starts to speak but I cut him off.
"That you want to kill him because I'm two-timing you with him." I try
to keep my voice down but it rises sharply with each word. "What's
with you anyway, huh, Fitz? Remember, you're the guy who asked
me once whether I'd rather have an American who tells you off and
means it, or a Brit who smiles politely and doesn't mean it. You're
acting like you've forgotten my answer."
"I haven't forgotten a damn thing. I still remember who I love.
Do you?"
The calm, cold way he says it disgusts me. I push past him
to leave, but he grabs my arm and swings me around.
"Do you?" he says, his voice hoarse.
"Now just hold on a cotton pickin' minute here." I stay in his
grip, but my feet dance restlessly on the oak floor. "You never
granted me permission to love you. That's something I brought to
our relationship. And no matter how much of my love I share with
you, Fitz, you don't have dibs on it. Or me for that matter. What
sappy fool drummed it into your head that love ever respects
boundaries?"
He points at me. "Yes, you. My love knows the difference
between you and any other." He keeps the accusing finger aimed at
my heart. "And there's a boundary you're going to have to respect if
you want our relationship to continue: I draw the line at you
dragging Nevar into bed with us. If you--"
"If I what? This is supposed to be about Chanlee," I say,
cutting the air with both hands. "She's the one with him.
Remember?"
"If you went after him with the unthinking ferocity you went
after my men, he'd--" He stops himself and takes a deep breath.
There's that fruking hesitation thing again.
"He'd what?" I say with my heels lifting off the floor. "Screw
that. If I hesitated with him last night, would we be having this
useless jealousy and guilt driven conversation?"
He looks up at the ceiling like he's praying for help.
"Sometimes, Rane, you can be an insensitive jerk." He takes his
time coming back to earth then gives me a look so penetrating I'd
swear that the gods he summoned are peering out at me from
behind his eyes. "Evidently, we're in this empty house because you

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don't think he kidnapped her. But what about Kenny Hironaka?


What about him?"
"I don't think--I'm pretty sure--" My sputtering collides with his
defiant stare. "He didn't kidnap Kenny," I say with so much
conviction that it surprises me into wondering if I'm losing it. I need
some shuteye. I pull my jacket more tightly around me and look
down to keep his prying eyes away from my thoughts.
"If you don't think he's guilty of anything, then--"
I look up abruptly. "Oh, he's guilty of something all right. He
has to be the brains behind the trigger-happy thugs, or he wouldn't
still be alive."
"Something. Anything. Nothing but words. All the lights are
on in the house, but we're standing here in the dark without the
answers, Rane."
Here I am, trying not to get defensive and failing miserably
because I'm feeling guilty as hell; while Nevar gets his jollies with
my truest friend because he's not capable of feeling even a twinge
of guilt.
I drop down onto the foot of the bed. "Believe me, I'd like him
to be guilty of something, anything, I don't care which." Just as long
as he gets a taste of guilt. "He knows too much to be clean. But
every damn time I try to fit the pieces together with him at the
center, the picture doesn't make sense. He wasn't up on the
mountain with the hikers, but he was there. He didn't slash the
throat of one of the hikers, but he was there. And I'll bet he didn't
snatch Kenny, but he was there, somehow, someway, somewhere."
Fitz watches me intently, his angry expression giving way to
interest. "Chanlee's car was parked in his driveway, but he wouldn't
rig it up to explode in front of his house. He--"
"He would rig it to detonate at his convenience."
"Details, details, nothing but freaking details that add up to
how many lies?" I say, holding my head.
He sits down beside me, slips an arm around my shoulders
and strokes my arm, while I stare off into space and stroke the cool
silk throw.
"If all the roads lead back to him, why do I keep coming up
with dead ends?"
"Maybe they're not dead."
I give him a dirty look. "You think I'm blocking myself?! I'd
have to be braindead to want to protect him."
He squeezes my arm. "I meant that maybe he's rigging the
paths to look like dead ends."
"Meaning he's feeding me red herrings?"
We both nod, although his is a lot more enthusiastic than
mine because he doesn't feel like he's letting himself down.

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"You're discouraged at this point because you're forgetting


something essential: He's not smarter than you, he just knows
more." He takes hold of my chin and turns my face to him. "Why do
you think that is?"
"Will you stop it?!" He refuses to unlock his gaze from mine.
"I don't tell you how to do your job."
"That's one of the reasons I love you even without your
helmet on." He hugs my shoulders and kisses my neck. The
relentlessly hideous feeling of being broadsided by a lying, snow
white devil almost vanishes in this ephemeral cocoon of love. "But if
the power he holds over you is his knowledge, then you have to
find the source of his knowledge."
"What do you think I've been trying to do?" I stare blankly
into his keen blue eyes while I rev my brain up a couple notches.
"Maybe I've been going at this all wrong. So far, I've been trying to
make sense of this mess by concentrating on who's working for him
and why. Maybe I should be trying to figure out who he's working
for--"
"Or with."
"--and what he has to gain by it. I know this sounds
abysmally stupid, but I'm stuck in the outfield praying for a fly ball
because I can't for the life of me figure out his motive."
I smile at him and kiss his eyes.
"A motive," I resume, shaking my head. "A simple, ordinary
garden-variety motive. Well, I've gone around in so many circles
today, centrifugal force has flattened out my brain. I need some
sleep. Might as well hit the hay here, she won't be back tonight." I
close my eyes, lift my hands above my head, yawn and stretch
back onto the bed.
Without warning me with a nuzzle, coo, peck, cuddle or kiss,
he lifts me up off the bed into his arms. "Let's split for my digs. I've
got something there guaranteed to please any cutie-patootie."
"I see." I shut my eyes and zoom in for a close-up in my
mind, turning the burgeoning image every which way. I open my
eyes abruptly and jump to my feet. "My painting!" I dash to the
spare bedroom where Chanlee and I unloaded my things from the
Doré. Fitz comes up so fast behind me, he almost mows me down.
"If it isn't here, she's given it to him."
Please let it be here.
It isn't.
Chanlee, you moron. Whatever he gives you, however much
pleasure you receive in return for it isn't worth anyone's life.
I wander back into her bedroom and plunk myself down on
the bed. Fitz parks himself at the doorway, leans cross-legged
against the jamb and looks at me like he's dying to cough up the
canary he just swallowed.

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"Remind me to take my laptop for work tomorrow," I say. He


smiles in agreement, and I pat the bed beside me.
His smile remains as he says without moving, "Nothing
doing."
"Well then, go ahead: Shoot!"
"If we took jealousy out of the picture, what would we be
looking at?"
"Jealousy?!" I snort. "Whose?"
"Let's start with yours."
"We'd still see the same fruking mess with my hands
dripping in the blood of a dead man, who, according to the press
and everyone else, never existed."
"Would you still be looking here for Chanlee?" Before I can
give him my definitive yes, he charges on, "Why haven't you
checked with Bruno?"
"Because he--because she--" An image flashes in my head
of Chanlee's face turning into a brazen beacon as she purred,
sighed and teased herself into a froth by going on about her circus
performance last night. I jump up. "Fruk! I'll bet she's with Dan."

Fitz and I knock on Dan's door longer than any fool would.
But his SUV is parked outside.
"Sorry for waking you, guy," Fitz says into his phone. "But
haul your ass out of bed and answer your door."
The door opens before the phone lands back in Fitz's jacket.
The smell of mentholated lavender and chamomile welcomes us.
Dan stays behind the door and sticks his head out at us. "I
was dreaming someone was knocking my door down," he says, his
voice fading in and out like he's still not sure he's awake. Mind you,
his eyes don't seem to be missing a thing as they soak up Fitz's
leather.
"Is Chanlee with you?" I blurt out.
"No," Dan says, his surprise giving strength to his voice.
"See for yourself." Staying behind the door, he steps back and
waves us to come in. I stay where I am. But if Fitz weren't up snug
behind me I'd give into my temptation to see what's behind the
door. "She had an appointment with someone this afternoon." He
scratches the back of his head. "Or do I mean yesterday
afternoon?"
"Either way, how was your trip to Drumheller?" He looks at
me like he's going to fall asleep if I don't stop talking Swahili.
"Chanlee said--"
"I told her I was taking the fossils to the museum." It's my
turn to give him a blank stare. "Fossils à la Myrt's parents."
"So you took them to the museum in town?" I say. He nods
and Fitz yawns. "Right. I saw you."

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Suddenly, he's wide awake. "You saw me?"


"In your black job," I reply. "You were cruising by the Ice
Cream Emporium on--"
"You saw Myrt," Dan says rather flatly considering how
awake he is. "We ordered Hungarian from our favorite restaurant,
and she was picking it up."
Myrt. The name is starting to grow on me because it rhymes
so well with the right words.
Fitz tells me what he thinks of the conversation by taking my
hand and tugging me in the direction of the elevator. "Your exercise
bike back up and running?" he says more as an enticement than a
question.
"Well, sorry for bothering you, Dan," I say, giving in to Fitz's
boredom with Dan and my excitement about a wild bike ride. But
half a step away I turn back to Dan. "She didn't by any chance try to
contact you?"
Dan shakes his head. "Sorry, I feel like a right sod, being this
unhelpful."
"Did you see me here Sunday morning?" Fitz asks, his
weariness suddenly gone.
"No. Why?" Dan says then shakes his head like he expects
to hear loose screws. "If I saw you, Rane'd know by my signal." I try
without a glimmer of success to get his gaze off Fitz long enough to
signal him to shut up. "As Chanlee will tell you, my dancing's only
passable, but it hardly qualifies as stamping."
I stifle a groan. He just gave Fitz enough ammunition to razz
me till doomsday. I look blindly up and down the hall, being extra
careful to avoid seeing anyone or anything in my peripheral vision.
Not that it does me any good, I can feel both of them staring right
through me. Might as well face the fruking music. I turn just as Fitz
steps past me.
"Got anymore tidbits for me hidden behind there?" Fitz says,
grabbing hold of the door and looking behind it. One scant look and
he adds, "Nothing I need concern myself about." The door shakes
from the tension of being pulled both ways at once. "Right, big
guy?" He slaps Dan on the back so hard Dan's nose makes a thud
against the door.
Fitz steps back into the hall, and Dan looks at me like
doomsday just hit.

"What was that display of macho bull about, huh?" I ask Fitz
in the stairwell on the way to my apartment. "What'd Dan ever do to
you?"
"Nothing. It's what he's been doing with you." His voice is
tense, challenging.
I won't go there.

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I go quietly into my apartment instead. Everything's eerily the


way I left it. Even the answering machine. There were no messages
from Chanlee or Fitz then, and there still aren't.
"Come here, little girl," Fitz beckons from the bike. "I have a
message for you."
"My machine's not working," I say with barely enough energy
to be heard as I shuffle to my bedroom.
The silence of the room is haunted by birds outside my
window, reciting poems, calling lovers across town, complaining
about the weather and praising the rising sun. I slump onto the bare
mattress and savor the feel of my head sinking into the bare pillow.
No sooner do I close my eyes than the phone rings.
And rings.

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CHAPTER 14

The ringing stops and Fitz says in a wickedly sexy voice, "Come
here, little girl, I have a message for you."
"Is it Chanlee?"
"You'll have to come closer. I can't hear you from way over
there."
"Who the hell is it, Fitz?" I shout with a drum roll in my head
saying it'd better not be Nevar.
Irritation shreds my curiosity, and I shoot off the mattress
then stop dead in my tracks in the living room. Fitz is nowhere to be
seen, but everything else is because it's no longer nighttime and
the balcony is already in shade.
The green light on the phone flickers as I'm staring at it. I
grab for it, but the line's dead.
Fitz, you don't want to see me today unless you want to die.
Like I've got time to be frivolous. I've already missed half a day's
work.
"Not if I play it smart," I say aloud, smiling inwardly.
Al said I could call the shots re my hours. As long as I get
the job done. With that in mind, I reward myself with a long,
drawn-out stretch that ends with a jolt. Fruk. Fitz's guys are mauling
the most intimate parts of my ugly propane guzzler, and my put-put
is at Chanlee's. Along with my laptop.
I put Nevar's cell to good use and call Faule.
"Rane?!" Al says. "You are all right, yes?" Before I can
answer, he says with urgency, "I was beginning to wonder if you
were ill. My yes. I tried both numbers you gave me and could not
get through at all. Do not worry yourself about coming by today--"
"Al, I'm fine."
"--I think I can manage without my right brain for a day or
two."
"I'm fine, Al. Really."
"Okey-dokey." His keyboard taps in the background to the
rhythm of his voice.
Suddenly, the tapping becomes upbeat along with his voice.
"Then you feel up to working this evening, yes?"
"I can be there in about an hour, so--"
"Wonderful. Marvelous. Toodleoo."
He hangs up. He'll just have to wait until I get there to hear
me say I can't work tonight. I have to sort things out with Chanlee.

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And Nevar. And Mr McPickles, and, and, and….


But Chanlee comes first and last. Walking into the bathroom,
I short-circuit the police switchboard by phoning Levi, her erstwhile
partner in crime.
"Holy smokes, Rane," his voice booms. "I was about to put
an APB out for you."
"Me?! I didn't say this was Chanlee, I said I was looking for
her. Have they stuck her out in one of the district offices?"
"Seems she's taking the next couple days off for another one
of her hiking trips. Thing is, she wanted me to get on the blower to
ya. I'd about given up tryin'."
"When did you talk to her?" I stop in front of the vanity mirror,
but all I can see is Chanlee's face.
"She phoned while I was chowing down last night."
"This isn't like Chanlee. How did she sound to you?"
"Like she's getting off on the mountain air."
"That's it?!"
"Chanlee's banked a shit-load of hours helping to keep the
streets safe for the likes of you and yours. Grant her that much,
Rane. Far as I'm concerned, she's earned more than a few days of
doing sweet all anywhere she doggone pleases."
"Yeah," I say, relaxing, "you're right." Tell that to the hair
standing up at the back of my head. When he said sweet all, a
picture flashed in my head of her kneeling perfectly still with her
hands tied behind her back, while Nevar playfully, teasingly curls
the hair at the back of her head with the barrel of a gun. And the
image remains plastered up everywhere in my brain.
"Say, I almost forgot," Levi says, "She said she doesn't want
you playing cowboys and Indians with the wheels she's dropping off
for you."
"If she said that then she must have called from the hospital
after the successful removal of her brain. Did she say where she
was calling from?"
"No, as I recall she was dialing 'n driving, so I figured she
was skedaddling to the--"
"She couldn't have been on the way to the mountains, Levi.
Because she didn't drop her car off until later."
"She didn't say…I just assumed…."
The remaining words get buried in a thoughtful silence
broken by the phone on my machine ringing.
"That's probably her." I race back to the living room.
"If not, gimme a shout."
"Thanks, Levi, I won't hesitate." I hang up in mid-sentence.
Her cell number is decorating the display.
"Chanlee?! Where are you?" I yell into the phone.

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"Hi, kiddo," she says with mindless cheerfulness. "You don't


happen to have a cola, now do ya?"
"Well, well, if it isn't Bambi," Nevar's voice says in the
background. "Chanlee's here. With me."
"You're with him?" I ask incredulously. Why the truth doesn't
want to register, I don't know. It's not like the thought of them
together hasn't been rubbing me the wrong way long enough to
make me sore.
"Uh-huh. I'm in his car."
"I've been worried sick about you, Chanlee."
"How was I supposed to know that when you never bothered
to call?" She sounds like she's the one being put upon. "Chill out,
Rane, I'm on vacation."
"You're not acting like you're on vacation, you're acting like
you're on drugs. What are you doing with that bastard?"
"Speaking of the devil, guess who wants to talk to you? If
you let him explain a few things, you'll see why it's better if he's with
me."
"When you coming back?" I ask.
"What's the rush?" she says with a sly flippancy that avoids
the question.
In a voice diabolically complacent, Nevar says, "We were
talking about how to convince you--"
"Nevar, you lay a finger on her and I'll--"
"Leave him alone," Chanlee says like she's not sure which
side of the fence she's sitting on. Then like an afterthought, she
says barely above a whisper, "We should continue this
conversation elsewhere."
"Watch him and your back," I say.
"Thanks, I will," she says politely. "Bye."
"Hold it!" I yell. "Where you headed?"
A dead line answers my question.
Parts of the conversation reverberate in my head like
misguided missiles. She's really flipped. Head over heels into his
clutches. She sounded like her brains are scattered everywhere
except in her head. He must have drugged her. Without her
knowledge? Ah, they're both old enough to pretend they know what
they're doing. Still….
I glance at my watch and yelp.

"Lookee, lookee, if it isn't the lucky lady herself," Stanley, the


super, sings to me as I step off the elevator into the lobby.
Normally, he has the mug and demeanor of a pissed off pit bull, but
I'm in no mood to listen to a pit bull sing. "Come," he beckons with a
grin that gobbles up his pie face, "it's your lucky day."

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"I spent longer on that damned elevator than I did in the


shower, so I don't need you to tell me what kind of day I'm having."
I step around him, but he steps back in front of me. I'm not in the
mood to tango with a pit bull, either.
Undaunted by my warning glare, he shoves his idiotic grin in
my face like he expects me to kiss it off. I'll kiss it off, all right.
"I have a message for you," he says.
He said it like Fitz, except Fitz doesn't sound like a pit bull
trying to purr.
"Where is he?" I growl.
He leads me out the back to the parking lot.
"Yes, and…and…?" I say, rattling my keys in my hand.
A starkly human shadow extends out from the front of the
garbage bin. The Watcher! I race over to the bin and come to a halt
in the ally.
Nothing.
I turn back, and the scent of him hits me. Everywhere at
once in all my senses. Nevar's here.
He is?!
The autumn sun shines on the last leaf of the poplar branch
above me, as it rides on the wind blowing away the scent of him.
Over the hum of cars on the trail three blocks away, a dog barks.
Nevar's not here, he's with Chanlee. If only he could ride on
my imagination like the wind, he'd be anywhere except with her.
"Your honey's over here," the super says, waving me over.
Fitz!? His face, lit with a knowing expression, pops into my
head and suddenly all my thoughts are clouded with guilt.
"She's right here," Stanley says, opening the metal door to
the shed attached to the back of the Doré.
"Did you say she?" I ask as he rolls out the Duke.
Fitz, oh Fitz, it seems I can't doubt you without doubting
myself. And this is what I get for my doubt: you closer to me than
ever, with Italy one day closer.
"Will you let me take her for a spin sometime?" His voice
sounds like the pangs of love have punctured his throat.
"Sounds like a plan."
He lets go of the Duke reluctantly then says eagerly like he'll
get his ride all that much sooner if he rushes, "I have your computer
bag in my office."

The chrome on the Duke glints at me as I dismount from the


bike in front of Al's. I take off my helmet, gather up my computer
bag and look at the house. Such a retro little thing with foolhardy
geraniums clinging for dear life in hanging baskets swaying in the
porch, the crimson and hot pink hinting at the explosion of color

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awaiting inside. Who'd ever guess that Mother Goose decorated


the interior?
Al opens the door as I'm about to ring the buzzer. His crisp
dark suit, tightly cinched tie, slicked back hair and the neatly folded
newspaper he's holding are in sharp contrast to my grub jeans,
boots and helmet.
Although he has summoned a smile to his lips, he looks at
me like I'm blocking his view. Ah, he's falling in love.
With the Duke.
"I see the Duke's made another conquest without gliding out
of neutral," I say and chuckle. He gives me a questioning look. "The
bike?"
"The bike?" he says with the comprehension of a parrot. He
shoves the newspaper up under his arm. "You are ready to start
working, yes? Come, your room is ready." What's with him? He's
acting like someone left him in the freezer overnight.
I follow him into the house, stopping to put my helmet and
things in the foyer closet.
"No, no," he says like he's admonishing a naughty child.
"Alas, the catch on the door is jammed. You may put your things in
the office."
We tread in silence through the wild hue zoo, with the whole
freaking menagerie jumping out at me, and a gaseous bouquet of
acrylic and latex paints hijacking my sense of smell. The lights are
on in the kitchen because the venetians on the windows are closed.
Seeing me stare at the blinds, Al says, "The sunlight it
makes it difficult to see the computer screen, yes?"
I pull out the chair with the larks still searching for an escape
route, and I sit down on wooden gardenias that have faded,
blistered and peeled in the sun. For a respite, I plunk down my
helmet in front of the photos of his garishly beautiful family.
"I think the cuckoos who owned this place imprinted big time
with Mother Goose," I say, trying to inject a bright note into the
lugubrious mood amidst the gourmand's delight of color.
Sitting down at his notebook across from me, he pats the
chair beside him, "You will see more better from here." The point is,
Al, I'd rather see less. I slide over onto the chair and get rewarded
with shadows of myself and Al in a blanked out screen. Come on,
come on, what Caravaggesque unatoned pleasures or
autobiographical horrors await beyond the darkness?
"Well now, do any of us really ever leave fairy tales behind?"
he asks.
"Nursery rhymes aren't fairy tales."
"Sure not. Mind, they both revel in the dark side of life and
the pleasures of the flesh, especially flesh dancing to the whip. Tsk,

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tsk, poor John O'Gudgeon." With a smile reconfiguring his bulbous


face, he sighs.
This close, I see the reason he always looks like he just
shaved. Except for his eyebrows, lashes and occasional strands
flopping down onto his forehead, his face is hairless.
"Yes, well, nursery rhymes are merely the warm-up for fairy
tales," he prattles on. "I really hate to think what civilization would
be without fairy tales." He said hate, but he looks positively
besotted by the idea. "They, they are erotica for children. My yes,
heavenly erotica devoured in every culture throughout time without
restraint."
"They're what?! Chicken Little isn't exactly my idea of a sex
symbol."
"The Frog Prince, Sleeping Beauty?" And Snow White.
"What do you think they are about? Now take Hansel and Gretel."
He presses Enter and another of the would-be Caravaggio works
lightens and darkens the screen. Only this one isn't a painting, it's a
pen and ink sketch.
"Al, this can't be a Caravaggio," I say, giving questioning
looks to both him and the sketch. "It's provocative, but way too
subtle."
"To be sure this is a departure from his other sketches."
"There are no extant sketches by Caravaggio. And any
documentation of such works by him has amounted to nothing."
"The failures of the past they are not mine. The unlucky sods
never got to see this," he says like now that he has spoken, there's
nothing left to say on the matter. Then he adds, "Sketching
exercises are for titillating, arousing creativity. Art it is what
happens when the Muse is seduced."
"That doesn't make this a Caravaggio." My feet won't stay on
the floor, and I kick him accidentally in the leg. "Sorry." I shift in my
chair and kick him again because he never bothered to move his
leg. Instead of apologizing, I slide my chair away from him and my
feet resume racing.
"Look, my sweet! This could very well be you and I or any of
the people we know playing the parts of Hansel and Gretel, would
you not say so?"
With him watching me with a sort of perverse parental
interest, I squirm inside and gaze in fascinated revulsion at the
sketch. A young woman with a body not unlike mine embraces a
boy in a roughly hewn metal cage. They're both nude and faceless.
His face is squeezed and deeply shadowed between the bars, while
hers blends into the cage. Behind them, in front of a shack with
boards missing, is a chopping stump with an axe in it. A rooster
perches on the handle while chickens mill around it.

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"No I wouldn't, Al," I say, shifting my gaze to him. For a


moment, I see him in the sketch. Not in it, exactly. More as though
the sketch were superimposed upon him. As the image dissipates,
his expression becomes tense, expectant, like he's still waiting for
my response. A deep, straight vertical crease forms in the center of
his forehead and butts up against a sharp line cutting horizontally
across the bridge of his nose. The last time I sat here with him,
those furrows looked like dimples, now they're deep cuts jarring my
comfort level. Looking back at the sketch, I add, "I'd say it's a
competent rendering of a slave with her child, but even the
Caravaggisti wouldn't take on a subject like this for fear the
inquisitive Church would--"
"Look again, this time for the less obvious, perhaps. Like
most people, you picture the witch's house in the forest from the
front. But Caravaggio with his iconoclastic turn of mind he shows it
from the back." He places a hand on my shoulder. His gentle
laughter shakes up the tension in me. "Well now, do not be so
dismayed, my sweet. He tries in his art to show the world through
the eyes of the Almighty. Oh yes, the Almighty One."
"I don't see God anywhere in this work. I see a
self-obsessed adult child."
"Pooh, being grown-up is grossly overrated, as Caravaggio
well knows. The trouble with being grown-up is that by time we
grow up who remembers who we are?"
"When you whitewash Caravaggio's work--supposing this is
his work--it may bring his message into sharper focus for you, but it
does absolutely nothing for me."
"Nothing?! Oh my, my, his radical naturalism it is not for
everyone, to be sure, but--"
"It's not his naturalism that I take issue with, it's his
self-indulgent anatomization of his ego and taste for boys and
blood. He never painted so well as when he ardently believed he
was being persecuted."
"In my mind's eye, that is a misreading of his art.
Certainement. Do you not see?"
I'd rather see what's inside the newspaper lying on the table
by your elbow. He's being casual about it, but he's still acting like
there's something in the paper he can't let go of. It's not the whole
paper, either. Only the first section, and all I can see is part of a
word in the banner headline: --ION.
"He does not revel in the persecution, but in the suffering,
yes?" he goes on. "He uses light symbolically to evoke the light of
heaven as opposed to the darkness of hell, to give us the Maker's
point of view, the Almighty's vision."
"More like the viewpoint of someone with a warped sense of
self from looking at himself in the mirror too much. The pope

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pardoned him, but God separated him from his fame, fortune and
art on the shores of Porto Ercole."
He starts to say something, purses his lips, then says, "With
or without God, his vision always goes beyond the horizon. You,
you should try it sometime, yes?"
I try not to let him see that I resent his assumption that I
haven't tried it, but I say coolly, "His horizon was clouded with his
fear of sin. He was continually seeking the redemption through his
art that he was too cowardly to give himself."
"My, my, I must say I am a tad surprised by your hostility
towards one of the world's greatest artists."
"Hostile?!" I mean to say as a snicker, but it comes out more
like a snort. "In order to be hostile, I'd have to invest a helluva lot
more time, attention and emotion than I could ever muster for him
as a painter or murdering carouser. He doesn't even show up on
my Richter scale." But you're beginning to, Al, my sweet.
"It, it is difficult at times to separate the man from his art.
Nevertheless--"
"Please don't drag out that tiresome bugaboo from your Art
History 101 lecture notes about keeping the artist separate from his
art. Caravaggio's no longer a man, Al. He's a historical figure."
"True, true," he says with his head drooping, "But more of a
mythic figure, would you not say so? You women are such
surprising, surprising creatures. It amazes me no end that you exist
at all. Absolutely floors me how much you understand without
having to learn it. I simply cannot stop envying you. My no. The way
you decorate up the lives of us men and never leave your childhood
behind like we do."
From the satisfied look on his face, I'd say he's expecting me
to be grateful for being relegated to window dressing--in a nursery
at that.
"That's condescending, castrating bull, Al."
"Goodness me, I did not mean for you to take that
personally. I meant simply that it is marvelous how you women
teach children how to wash themselves and appreciate fairy tales.
Caravaggio himself would understand your hostility. I daresay that
perhaps he would secretly admire it. But you must understand, my
sweet, that for him hate is not the opposite of love, no, no. Freedom
is."
I look more closely at the caged boy being embraced.
"If love is bondage, then what is hate?"
"Whatever you want it to be. God is immutable, yes? But
Satan he is not. Therein lies his power. And all true art." Seeing my
shocked protest, he smiles serenely and adds, " We are the only
creatures on this earth that relish the pain and suffering of others as
entertainment, that make war into art and worship death as an art

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form. For good, good reason. Happiness, joy, ecstasy, they are all
fleeting, but war and death they are always with us and nothing
lasts as long as death. As we speak, how many people beyond
your macho doll world are fantasizing about hitting, maiming, killing,
or vaporizing other people?"
Macho doll?! He can add me to the list of people doing the
fantasizing.
"You cannot avoid the truth by avoiding the answer, my
sweet. But do not mistake my meaning. Hate it is not a commodity
that can be traded or bartered. My no. And you cannot buy it like
you can purchase hope with a lottery ticket or plastic surgery.
Think. Who or what keeps God in business?"
"I don't want to argue with you again about the extent to
which dishonesty runs the world."
"Good." He slaps his hands down on his thighs and they
quake like jelly. "We have made some progress on that score, then
have we not?" I look in the direction of the sketch but roll my eyes.
His quest for riches and immortality through someone else's art is
beginning to sound like a terminal illness.
He sails along, like I'm caught in his wake, and I hunker
down for a long-winded trip. "Pop psychologists go on and on about
shame as though we have too much of it. What drivel! We are
enculturated in this society to be completely shameless in the
pursuit of our vices, yes? We reward the boundless avarice of our
most successful acquisitors, with our envy and adulation. So now
there are no more poor people. No. They have become greedy rich
people without money. You are not convinced, yes?"
"I wouldn't have chosen this field of work if money were my
prime motivation."
"Perhaps so. But your youth it is not a vice, yes? No, no, not
in itself. But the way we pursue and worship youth that is exactly
what it is. If people kept their word and were as honest as the day
is long, who would own the land we are sitting on and claim as
ours?" His rebellious hair is becoming unfurled, and a strand flops
down on his forehead.
"Uh, to get back to the sketch at hand…."
"But my sweet, that is precisely what we are discussing,
yes? Notice the joyfulness in the embrace."
"The rough metal bars between them portray the ecstasy of
the willing slave, would you say?" Although my sarcasm is crude,
it's so obvious, he nods in agreement.
"When the body is negated, what else can the spirit do but
be free?"
"By that logic, quadriplegics are the freest of us all."
"It is perhaps a question of will, yes? Do quadriplegics
willingly surrender their bodies? Not a whit. The ultimate freedom is

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in the willful surrender of oneself to another's will. Ask any of the


people who greedily brand themselves with corporate logos. Do
you not see? The boy he is the freest because he is surrendering."
"Surrendering to the will of God can be a trap in itself."
"Heavens, child, he is not surrendering his will to God, but to
her. Only to her. He is inside the cage she has made to deliver him
from the torture of having to think. Look at the way he is melting
into her breast. He is on his way to negating his rapacious taste for
suffering by becoming nothing but the thought of her. Pure,
unadulterated spirit."
Pretending to look wistfully at the sketch, I say, "Ah, for the
good ol' days when slavers weren't hindered by modern
inconveniences such as a conscience."
"Now you mock the truth, yes?"
"Better that than using it to defend lies, yes?"
"You, your arguments are leading you astray from
Caravaggio's work, no?"
"No. A caged, mindless, sadomasochistic spirit happy in its
slavery?! I seriously doubt it, Al. Any happiness the boy derives
from being a willing slave comes from surrendering to his
delusions, to making himself believe that his thoughts and feelings
are emanating from somewhere outside himself. But he's not just
behind the 8-ball, he's behind the decision to give in to the abuse.
And that decision is every bit as willful as the decision not to give in
to it."
"Given how cruel and unfair life can be, art that extols the
virtues of sadomasochism is redundant, would you not say so?"
"You agree with me then?"
"No, my sweet, Caravaggio is no sadomasochist."
"Yeah right. Just a willing slave to his free spirit. And who
have you surrendered your will to, huh, Al? Who's doing your
thinking, feeling and deciding for you? Hitler's dead."
Surely that's not indecision crossing his face?

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CHAPTER 15

"Hitler never surrendered to anyone," Al says shamelessly, his


putty face taking on a hardened look. "You should know that it adds
nothing at all to our discussion of Caravaggio to bring a failed artist
into it. No, no, I surrender myself willingly, ecstatically to only one
thing."
He pauses to give me time to guess. Even if I used the right
words, they wouldn't mean the same to him. Freedom, love, hate,
hope, will, joy. All commonplace words that go back so far in my
mind I don't ever remember learning them. Yet the way he says
them, it's like I'm hearing them for the first time. There's a
malevolent cadence, a primitive subtext beyond Neanderthal,
beyond biological, like he's suspended in a spiritual void, merrily
preaching away to all his surrendered spirits and would-be
captives. But to get us to believe what, to do what exactly?
"If art it is to mean anything to you, then you have to
surrender yourself completely to it, yes? I daresay that is what art
does to simple souls such as myself," he says, taking the words out
of my mouth, but without my meaning.
I point at the sketch. "But is this really art? I think it's
derivative and not of Caravaggio."
"Who else dares to dream so dangerously?" Nevar springs
to mind, but what he does is the antithesis of art. "It took genius to
catapult him into thinking the unthinkable. What will it take you, my
sweet?"
"It doesn't take much thinking to go beyond this year's or last
year's fashionable brand of morality."
"Such a timid answer." He shakes his head and refrains from
tsking, but his putty face takes on the expression of a professor
handing back a failed paper. "It is too, too bad that we censor the
dreams of our children and shape them into chicken-hearted
dreamers. It is a dirty shame, yes? Can you not see? When it
comes down right to it, all we are left with at the end is our dreams,
because even our memories they fade and fail us." He pushes his
chair back and heaves himself out of it, pocketing the newspaper in
the process. "Feel like coffee?" I shake my head but stand up
because my chair feels like it's growing tendrils. "What would you
say is the focal point of this work?"
"The cage."
"Not the spider?"

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"What spider?" I lean into the screen and see a web


stretched across an opening in the shack where a board has
broken away. "There's no spider, Al, only a web. But even if the
spider were out in the open, climbing on her skin or the cage, it still
wouldn't be the focal point because it's not capable of wielding the
axe."
After retrieving a plain white mug from the cupboard, he
pours himself strong smelling brew from the yellow plastic maker,
so shiny and glaring it looks like it's a megawatt lamp. His left
eyebrow shoots up as he takes a sip, with three fingers of each
hand flaring out at the rim of the mug. A red horseshoe decorates
the bottom of the mug.
"Someone once said that we're all gossamer threads that
God spins into a web then abandons. Could be why we fear and
loathe spiders, would you not say so?"
"My brother loves them."
"Yes? Fancy that."
"If I'm understanding you, you're saying that unseen, God is
watching us. That in the light of day the two figures have forgotten
that the stars are still up there looking down on them."
"Perhaps, perhaps," he says, his eyes lackluster as he
shakes his head. "The spider is not absent, it is within, yes?
Caravaggio he is saying that God is in the knowing."
"That's not quite how I'd say it."
"No?" The broken ends of his eyebrows turn down sharply.
"No. I'd say this is a fake. If the Muse was involved, she
faked her orgasm. Like Febo di Poggio, Merisi could paint so well
he created smut for angels. This is just plain smut."
"Perhaps, maybe if it was the work of Potggio di Merisi.
There is a crucial difference, yes? Viz., this it is Caravaggio's art,"
he says and takes a sip of coffee. Over the rim of his mug he gives
me a knowing look. This from a man who doesn't know one
divinized Michelangelo from another. As the mug descends, a smile
spreads over his face, not of knowing, but of victory. A victory worth
savoring. I see this all through a darkening cloud of suspicion, while
I fight the urge to scratch my back because it feels like something's
crawling up my spine. And taking its time doing it.
Al's just trying to be fatherly, I suppose, but the more he
talks, the less I can picture him as a father. Oh, I can picture him
well enough, but going around with his balls in his hands, feeling
decapitated and tortured by his excessive kindness to his wife and
children.
"This work isn't self-conscious enough to be his," I say, my
voice as brittle as the flowers in the glass bouquet on the table. I
pick an iris, all shiny and bright, capable of being destroyed but not
killed. Lifeless art.

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"The sense of self is the sixth sense. You understand, yes?


It is the last one to develop and the first to go kaput," he says. He
takes a sip of coffee and sticks his tongue out like he's searching
for the flavor. He's on the scent for something. What? Not the
siliciferous particles of worn-out rock tossed into the fires of hell to
make the flower I drop into the vase. "Have not you noticed the
extent to which people will go to rid themselves of their
individuality? For the hardiest of souls, the only time they feel safe
and secure, wanted and alive is when you give them a taste of
death. Were it not true, were it not true." He pauses, with a ghoulish
glint in his eyes, like he's lamenting the absence of death. Shaking
his head, he resumes, "Yes, yes, when you make them suffer by
beating and forcefully ravaging them and tearing, searing,
consuming their flesh with pain because, my sweet, total pain is
total possession." He says it like he's warming up his lips, brains
and other instruments of torture for someone specific. "That is why
pain is a seductive virtue, is it not? My yes."
His use of elaborate rationalizations to disguise petty,
stunted, lame feelings is anything but seductive.
"Not everyone is tortured by the burden of having a soul," I
say, feeling my soul recoiling. Not at anything identifiable. No, at
something missing.
He gives me a lavish grin, then says, "Your sense of sin is
showing, my sweet."
"And yours is conspicuous by its absence."
"You want that I should change my views to suit you? My,
my, but I am disappointed in you, Rane--my yes I am--for
succumbing to your gender. I thought you would circumvent the
defects of your sex. You women you understand yourselves fully
enough to see the need to change yourselves. No quibble with that,
not a whit. Alas, no woman is willing to settle for that. She has this
hellish, insatiable, vampiric desire to change the men she loves."
Shaking his head, he tsk, tsks. "You women are--"
"The spoilers of man's perfection?" He deigns to give me a
smile that he swiped from those bloody angels in the bathroom.
"Eve couldn't leave well enough alone. No, she had to
redecorate. Starting with him, yes? Interior decorating him."
"Tell me, Al, how do you mutilate and destroy someone's
body and devour her soul as a forfeit, without changing that
person?"
"Poo!" he says with a flick of a hand. "The idea is not to
destroy the person, but to strip away the superfluous to get at Eve.
Man he does not try to change her, my no. He forgives. To
understand completely is to forgive completely, yes? You would say
that women understand men so well they can't forgive. You would,
oh yes you would. But--"

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"Are we talking about you and Alma?"


"--unlike a woman, a man he does not need to change the
world to love it."
"No. Man changes the world to dominate, control and make
it over into his own image. But what's this crock about
understanding and forgiveness? You're saying that men ought to
loathe women because all males are tainted with her original deed.
So what have you forgiven, huh, Al? And your Spider, for that
matter. Does he understand well enough to forgive? If every male
born is still tainted, then who's doing the tainting? Who tainted the
Spider, huh, Al?"
He wiggles a finger at me. "I can see the twinkle in your
eyes. Twinkle, twinkle little heart. You are wishing to change my
mind, yes? Alas, you women, you cannot escape yourselves."
"Why should we?" I snap.
"Now you are agitated with me, yes? Because I have ruffled
your temper by subjecting you to an argument you cannot, dare not
refute."
"What argument, Al? You've been all over the map. You said
that God is in the knowing, but that Eve is to blame for the woes of
man, because she chose knowledge of self over the bliss of
endless ignorance." He looks at me with amusement that buries my
goodwill in his condescension, so I add with cold vigor, "My take on
this? Man knows himself too well to forgive himself. But I don't see
the point in contradicting you when you do such a thorough job of
doing that yourself." My eyes lock on his. "At Delphi, the gods
warned each and everyone of us to 'Know thyself.' Other gods
reserve that knowledge for themselves and with diabolical fervor
punish any of us mortals for presuming to be worthy of such
knowledge. If you want me to refute your argument, Al, then choose
your god."
With his gaze still riveted on me, he swings down his mug.
Black brew erupts out of the mug, darkening the purple counter.
"Now that our chitchat is over, down to work, yes? I have an
appointment that will be taking me away shortly. That alarms you,
yes?"
"No. Actually, I was trying to disguise my delight."
Gleaning the serious overtones of my jest, he says, "Yes,
yes, while the cat's away, the mice shall play." Ha, ha. He rubs his
hands together and adds, "Beautiful. For I have left instructions for
you on this…." He reaches into his jacket, pulls out a disk and holds
it out to me. He doesn't make any effort to move close enough for
me to reach the disk, so I stretch across the peninsula between us
to take it. Then with a smile I once thought was adorable and
inviting in its dimply sweetness, he walks around the peninsula and
past me to his computer. He knows I've figured out that he's not a

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Caravaggesque scholar. Yet his embarrassment about it is only as


deep and lasting as his smile.
"What's the point of giving me this?" I toss the disk on the
table. "I've already given you my professional opinion that the
sketch is a fake."
Keeping his eyes on the notebook he says, "An opinion,
whatever its source, is not a statement of fact, yes? It is your job to
prove it is a fake." He picks up the disk, throws it back at me and
resumes typing.
I stop myself from tossing it back at him, because I can't
afford the luxury of throwing away my ticket to Italy. "Just how do
you propose I do that without seeing the original?"
"You will stay to see the original tonight, yes?"
"What about the other two works?"
"Three, my sweet. Those also." His dimpled fingers smoke
the keyboard in wild abandon without so much as grazing
Backspace or Delete. The universal monkey at work. But why
bother with the charade? The game's up. "I cannot wait to see your
surprise," he resumes, "when you discover how authentic it really
is. Oh yes."
"It's going to take more than a mere look to determine the
authenticity of an unsigned sketch."
"It is signed on the back."
"I'll bite, by whom?"
"Enough shilly-shallying. The answers are on the disk," he
says impatiently. He glances up, meets my gaze then quickly looks
down again and says cheerfully, "It is time for me to scadoodle. I
will leave a key in the second flower pot in the porch in case you
should decide to fetch yourself something for dinner. I will be back
around sevenish, yes?"
I nod.
What the hell, the art world is full of crackpots and deluded
idiots with crazed dreams of glory that they've lucked upon a
masterpiece that'll bring them untold wealth and fame. Taking
money from him for doing bogus work is like taking candy from a
baby. But I didn't sacrifice most of my youth learning this business
so I could prostitute my knowledge, talent or ambitions. The idea
was to put a kibosh on scam artists intent upon victimizing gullible
dilettantes like him. And there's no doubt about it, someone's
scamming him big time. Bet he gave up his job teaching some
bullshit philosophy course, left his family in the lurch and took all
the money out of their home to finance all this. If I stay on, I'll be
taking his money, but it'll give me a chance to track down these
unconscionable con artists and stop them from absconding with his
family's life savings.
"See you around 7:00, then, Al," I say, gathering up my bag.

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"Righto."
As I pass the basement door I hear a click like the door's
locking. I glance back at him, but he's busy packing away his
notebook.
I stop abruptly at the office doorway to let my eyes adjust
from the overload of aggressive hues. Except for small black stars
peppering the ceiling, the decorative motifs have been replaced by
ghostly white. The closet in the wall across from the windows is
gone, replaced by a built-in bookcase already filled up with coffee
table art books. Another filled bookcase runs down the full length of
the adjacent wall, while a smaller one is built into the wall shared by
the foyer. I pull out a couple of books and stare lustfully at the
glossy color plates. Someday I'll have a library like this. If I ever
stay in one place long enough to collect anything.
I plunk the computer bag down on a pale laminate desk
facing away from the window, and sit down on an upholstered chair
so new the factory chemicals are almost disguised by the smell of
packing materials.
Why the hell did I turn down that cup of coffee? I need
something to keep me awak-KE! Someone's shadow is joining mine
on the desk. I spin around and see good ol' Al laughing at my
surprise and giving me a thumbs-up. Weird, but I never heard him
go out the front door. As I watch him leave, his image morphs into
Nevar's. Nevar lies about big things and tells the truth about little
things that don't add up to B-all; whereas Al tells the truth about the
big things and lies about the little things that would be meaningless
details if they didn't add up to something.
Nevar and Chanlee…. I shake my head.
What did he use to entice her to the mountains? His rotten
personality and burnt-out surfer bum looks wouldn't be enough to
lure her away from Dan. Or would it? After spending the night
hyper-extending her libido with Dan, all it took was a quick shower
to wash him away, and voilà she was dressing hot-to-trot in my
clothes for a tryst with Nevar. So while I walk on eggshells in
Mother Goose's house of horrors, that maggot-infested
dingleberry's stomping on my life, trying to bury my relationship with
Chanlee. And my family. And Fitz.
I open the cupboard beside the coffee maker in the kitchen
and grab the only plain mug in sight. Turning it around to take hold
of the handle, I see that it has a large screw painted on the inside at
the bottom. Then I turn it upsidedown and see that what I had
thought was a horseshoe is in fact a U. Al's mug. At least the
sneaky jokester washed and put it away instead of leaving me to
clean up his mess. I fill the cup, lift it up in the direction of the
photos on the table and toast him, "Same to you, Al."

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The caffeine-drenched liquid soothes my throat and kicks my


feelings about the decor past revulsion to an unquenchable
curiosity. The renovation in 'my' office can't have been done for little
ol' me. The makeover is too dramatic and costly to be a useless
quick fix. Yet, this whole place has a transient feel to it, like if I
looked under his bed I'd find his luggage packed.
Where is his bedroom, anyway?
I find it on the other side of the kitchen. The venetian blind is
down in this room too, so I flick the light switch, and wish I hadn't.
Like frozen soldiers decorated in their funereal finery, gilded
Chinese scroll pots line all four of the smoky aluminum-foiled walls.
Besides being repositories of stale air, the pots brim over with
sinuous, denuded branches fanning out against the walls and
forming a canopy over the metallic purple bed in the center of the
room. I keep my head bowed to avoid getting tangled up in the
forest of death, and I peer under the bed.
No suitcases.
No suitcases anywhere. No more bedrooms, either.
How could that be? Al has two kids. The other bedrooms
must be in the basement. Surprisingly, the door to the basement is
unlocked.
Definitely no bedrooms down here. It's cold, dank,
undeveloped and empty except for a pile of pine lumber and cans
of white primer and beige paint stacked neatly on the cement floor
along with drop sheets, roller trays and other painting
paraphernalia.
I thought so, I say aloud, nodding my head. He's renting this
place because the scammers have him convinced that
Mabie-Toogod will help him vanquish all the naysayers. There's no
point in staying here. I can't do anything until I see the real McCoys.
I'll have a boo at the disk he gave me then come back around 6:30.
First, though, I need to get up to speed with Kenny vis-à-vis the
media. What the hell? There aren't any newspapers down here.
Maybe he left the one he had in the kitchen.
No such luck.
How about a TV then? There might be some news about
Kenny on one of the local channels.
No TV, either.
Al, you lead an interesting life.
I detour on my way back to the office to relieve myself of the
double-filtered coffee in the murderous red bathroom, and take a
few minutes to see what's inside some of the small but obtrusive
drawers lining the wall. With overfed angels giving me the evil eye, I
snoop inside the EYEBALLS, SCABS, EARS and TONGUE
drawers and find they're filled with a boring assortment of grooming
aides such as eyedrops, cotton balls and swabs.

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A phone rings. I dash into the office and reach for Nevar's
phone in my jacket. The ringing stops. Damned nuisance. Then a
double ringing starts up from the computer bag on the desk. I grab
my cell from the bag. It's Fitz.
"How's it going?" he asks.
"Not much happening, but things are still in a snafu."
"That why you haven't called? Or is this phone erasing your
messages too?"
"How would I know?" I snap. "I didn't know I had it. I thought
it was still conked out at my apartment. You could have told me."
"I thought you'd look in the case."
"A lot of good your wrong thinking does me." I expect him to
snap back at me, but he remains silent, and I distill a moment of
peace from the silence. "Uh, let me check out this phone, then I'll
get right back to you."
Looking through the bag, all I find of interest are my
sunglasses. This room's not too bad, but being in this house feels
like I'm in an exploding rainbow. I slip on the shades. Ah, that's
better.
Then retrieving the most recent of six messages on the
phone, I listen to Fitz informing me that both my car and Chanlee's
are clean. "But Timber's nose says that the same person--not you
or Chanlee--was in both vehicles," Fitz's voice says. "On the
passenger's side in hers, and the driver's side in yours. This new
friend of yours is dirtying his lily whites with hell dust. When I find
Nevar, I'm going to strip a piece off him and feed it to Timber."
Not if I get to him first.
The next message is from Chanlee calling from her home
phone Sunday at 5:35. I press Playback, but all I hear is her saying,
"Baaa", which she interrupts with a sneeze then hangs up. The next
one is from her too, but six minutes earlier and from my cell: "Watch
yourself, Rane. The hat fits into the painting in the locker! Get back
to me ASAP, will ya?"
The third message is from her at 5:02: "Rane! Geez, hurry
up and answer the freakin' phone! Now! Now! Kuan-yin!"
The fourth message is also from her. This one at 4:30: "Nice
friends you've got there, kiddo. They've been chasing me from yin
to yang and back again because they're after your butt. Finally
shaken them, but for how long? We have to get the police involved,
Rane. I know, I know, they're already involved, but it's my butt on
the line now too, and I know who we can bring on side. Anyhow, I'm
heading home to get out of these clothes. I swear every second
felon in town thinks this dress is a red flag. Then I'm off to my big
date with you-know-who. Before you get any ideas, kiddo, you're
not invited."
And the last message from her is clocked at 3:47: "I could
use some backup, kiddo," her voice says, sounding winded. "I'm up

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to my eyeballs with the Watcher. I know it sounds crazy, but I swear


he's coming at me from all directions. Scare up Fitz and
we'll--sssshhitttt--"
How could she go with Nevar? What can she possibly see in
him? Why am I even thinking about him? I throw the phone on the
desk then just as quickly snatch it up again. There was something
about the way she said they. Like I know who they are. Where the
hell was I, and what was I doing when she made each of those
calls?
The phone rings as I'm about to press Replay.
"Has Chanlee tried to contact you today?" I ask Fitz.
"Not Chanlee, no," my father says. "Thankfully, Fitz has.
He--"
"Hi, Dad."
"--just explained why you haven't been returning my calls.
I've been trying to get hold of you because McPickles had surgery
this morning to remove a blockage in his intestines."
"Oh no, not Mr McPickles?! How bad is--"
"He won't die on us. Not McPickles, he's too much of a
fighter. His chances of surviving were far worse before the
operation. You see, he--" His voice drops to a whisper. "--Is it safe
to talk?"
"Except for some demonic angels stuck in red paint, I'm
alone. Why?" Although he sounds calm and quiet, there's an
alarming tone running through his voice that I've never heard
before. A tone that scares the hell out of me because I recognize it
as an element that's been added to my own voice over the past few
days. "Never mind that, I'll be right over. You're at home or the
vet's?" I grab my jacket and sling the computer bag over my
shoulder.
"I'm at work, but I can meet you at the house in an hour."
I close down and dial up Fitz as I make my way through the
house.
"Fitz, can you spare some time from your wheeling 'n dealing
to run a few errands for me?" Don't know why I feel guilty asking
him. He's going to get one of his employees to do them. I reach up
and feel around for the key in the second hanging basket in the
porch.
"I'm not doing anything I can't get out of for my best friend
and cutie-patootie. I'll fly to the moon for you. Italy too if you want.
Just name it."
That kind of talk goes straight to my heart like an arrow,
almost as fast as he went from here to Italy.
"First of all, play back that last phone call in your head and
take out all my snapping and miserable whining. If there's anything
left, that's what I really wanted to say to you. Okay?"

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"Don't make excuses for being ticked off. You won't see this
through if you don't stay madder than hell."
"How can I stay mad when you talk to me like that?" It feels
good to hear myself laugh. "Now that you've got me buttered up,
suppose you could pick up a bicycle derailleur from the Spoke'n
Wheels bike shop? The one in the southwest." I lock the front door.
"Consider it done."
"And it'd be great if you'd do a land title search on this place."
"Where you're working?"
"Yes." I drop the key in one of the box planters flanking the
doorway. Funny, but I don't remember them being stuffed with
flowers. All late bloomers to boot. Then again, I don't remember the
planters being here the first time I saw this place.
"If my paranoia level gets any higher I'm going to be
certifiable," I go on. "But I'm pretty sure my boss is being rooked by
persons unknown who have found an easy way to separate a
willing fool from his money. A good place to start tracking down
these dirty dealers is to find out who owns this freaky place."
"Sure you want to take this on, what with one set of
wiseguys already aiming to give you a one-way ticket to ride?"
"It's what I do for a living, Fitz."
"Duh-yup. And, look, you don't have to gallop around Italy to
do it."
What's with him, always trying to drag me to Italy with him?
"Who knows where it'll take me?"
"My bed tonight?"
"You never could separate work from pleasure."
"You say that like it's a crime. Tell ya what, sugar, why don't
you come over tonight and arrest me? And bring your handcuffs."
"I'll leave my helmet on if you rev up the whirlpool."
I blow softly into the phone, and he catches his breath.
"What's the address there?" he says in a voice so low and
deep yet vibrant I swear those are the sexiest words in the
universe.
"Uh…." The address? First let me get back to Earth. "2597
Kirkewood Place."
"And the number?"
"It's--" I stop myself from giving him the phone number Al
gave me. "You know what, Fitz? I don't think this place has one."
"Then keep this phone on."
"Absolutely. One more favor. Think you can round up today's
papers and all the local ones you can get your hands on from the
past week?"
"Can do. How's your new baby?"

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"That devil can charm a snake out of a tree. He--" Shit,


shoot, shite! I think he means the Duke. "The bike is a real
godsend, Fitz. Thanks. But I'm worried about Chanlee. What the
hell is she doing with him?"
"The same thing as you?"
"Men. Can't you think beyond sex?"
"No, because there's nothing beyond sex."
"In the message you left me this morning, you said that
Nevar's into the snow white crap. I don't buy it. Chanlee's never had
a yen for illicit kicks. No courage pills for her. Not a chance. Her
honesty and courage blow all that away in the dust. If he offered
her nose-candy, his nose would be out of joint in the slammer." So
why did she sound like she had dynamite for brains?
"Just because he hasn't given any to her, doesn't mean he's
not a user and doesn't have the stuff on him."
"Right, but why are you so sure he was the one in our cars?"
"You need proof? I'll get it for you."
"Now you're talking. But don't stay angry, or you won't see it
through. He's not much good to me dead."
"You're telling me," he says with a sinister twist. "Chanlee's
my bud, if he harms her, he'd better kiss his butt good-bye."
In case he decides to add more to his punch line, I quickly
say, "Have you heard of an Erns Bilkovitch?"
"No. The only friend of Nevar's I know is you."
"He's not my friend."
"Sure he is, or you'd make mincemeat of him instead of the
truth about him."
I don't throw more fuel on the fire by contradicting him. What
the hell, he can have the last word. It's not the truth, anyway.

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CHAPTER 16

The Duke stops on a dime outside Erns Bilkovitch's storefront law


office off Shaganappi. Because I know he has dealings with Nevar,
I expected the place to be seedy, but the white stucco building with
its huge black and white neon sign blatantly advertises his
respectability in a tidy, barren, unimaginative way.
Rock music blares inside the stark white two-story reception
area surrounded by fake plants cascading down from ersatz
balconies. Behind the reception desk, a woman with
immaculately-groomed greasy garbage-bag orange hair and
dandruff on her glasses, bobs up and down and slides back and
forth along the full length of the desk. Leaning across the
transaction counter, I see that her butt is overloading an exercise
ball.
"Rane Lavita to see Mr Bilkovitch," I say. "I phoned earlier."
Taking her good sweet time, she says, "What was it you
wanted to see him about again?"
"Work, actually. I was wondering if he could use someone to
water the plants."
She eyes me, her nostrils flared and eyelids at half-mast,
giving her a fiercely moronic look. "Have a seat." She jerks her
head in the direction of a row of oversized ice-cream buckets.
I sit down in the one with a mirror behind it. She stares into
the mirror like she's begging it to lie to her and looks through me
like I'm a smudge she'd like to wipe away. Eventually, she returns
from her visit to her shrine and steps out from behind the desk,
crosses in front of me and jerks her head in the direction of a
doorway on her right.
"This way," she says, slinking along. A slit running up the
back of her long tight skirt gives me the dubious pleasure of
watching her thighs and cheeks bob and roll. Thankfully, she tugs
down on the skirt, but then one of the spare tires she's smuggling
under her spandex top pops out.
As I follow her, keeping back a little in case she falls off her
eight inch platforms, the fading rock music isn't overtaken by the
sounds of anyone working. So where are his elusive associates? If
they're ghosts, then who are his clients? Wish I'd had more time to
check him out first. For all I know, he could be the Hiker.
Humming to the absent rock music like she's wearing
earphones inside her head, she abandons me in front of an

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unmarked, fake wood door. Avoiding a cord bundle duct-taped to


the vinyl tiles in the hall, I open the door and trip into the room on
one of the rolls in the Shar-Pei carpet.
A short, twitchy man rises from behind his laminate desk,
and holds out his hand to me while I pick myself up off the floor.
"What can I do for you, Miss Lavita?" He tilts his head back
and a little to the right and talks out of the right side of his mouth,
baring rodent's teeth. He sits down again as I reach my hand
across the desk. His forced smile ices me, while the gold rings on
his fingers sear into my hand.
"Mind if I sit down?"
He smiles, and his long thin nose hooks down almost
touching a growth lingering on his upper lip like a drop of sweat. His
face is damp like the armpits of his tight green suit.
There's no chair on my side of the desk, so I take one of two
plastic jobs stranded by a wall of sagging low-grade particle board
bookcases painted with dust and filled with law books that would
probably turn to powder if anyone bothered to open them. None of
the walls in the room--or anywhere else in the place, come to think
of it--are decorated with so much as a discount store print. He
saves all the decoration for himself. Not hard to tell that with this
guy, all his hardware is decoration.
After touching a small pendant dangling on a heavy gold
chain around his neck, he sits back on his high-backed leather
chair and taps the armrests. Each hand is out of sync with the other
and with his eyes making quick, jerking movements in my direction
without his gaze touching base with mine. Tap, TAP, tap, tap, my
left foot syncopates with his fingers. His insistent urging builds
momentum, while I take my time getting seated.
Just at the point where his hands rise from the armrests and
curl in readiness to wring my neck, I clear my throat and lean
forward. Choosing my words carefully, I say, "I got your name from
Stefan Nevar."
At the mention of Nevar's name, my throat tightens and
Bilkovitch's twitching gears down a notch. "Stefan Nevar, of course,
of course. Good barrister, that one. You can't go wrong with Stevie
Boy." He stops there, but his accusing look is saying, "So what do
you think you can get from me that you couldn't from him, you
conniving bitch?"
I'd like to jump across the desk and tattoo the answer on his
eyeballs, but I talk slowly, keeping my tone even if not light. "It's not
what you can do for me, Mr Bilkovitch. I have a message for you
from him." He reaches out with his tongue to the growth on his lip.
"He'd like you to know that the hat goes with the painting in the
locker."

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He jerks forward, his snake eyes widen and the blue veins
on his temples bulge and pulsate. I start at the violence of his
reaction, and recoil the words about Kenny I was going to whip out
at him.
Drawing courage from my surprise, he laughs nervously.
"Always the kidder, Steve." He shakes his head and beads of sweat
grace the air. "Always the joker. Ha, ha, the hat belongs with the
painting in the locker." He picks up the dead phone on the desk,
and says to the ghost in the machine, "Hold, please?" Then he
clamps his hand over the phone and says to me, "As you can
see…."

Back outside, I brush myself off because it feels like I've


been swimming against the current in a gutter. I used Chanlee's
message to test him, but I'm the one who flunked the test.
Everyone involved in this mess knows that the hat goes with the
painting in the locker, but now everyone knows that I know. He's on
the phone for real this time, shooting off his mouth to Nevar. But
what is it about the hat, painting and locker together or apart that
nearly made Bilkovitch croak on the spot when I mentioned them?
I'm missing some cruddy detail that makes all the difference in the
world. Yeah, like the difference between here and Italy. Chanlee
said it like I should know who the woman in the red hat is. But I'm
not the one who knows, Nevar is. She has to be the blond job who
can't say more than one sentence without mentioning Darien.
"Who the hell is Darien?" I ask Fitz over the phone as I hop
on the Duke.
"I've heard that name somewhere. Only the other day," he
says thoughtfully.
"In connection with Nevar?"
"No, with the kidnapping--"
"Same thing."
"--Can't remember whether I heard it on the street or on the
news. Let it ride, and it'll come back to me."
"Which reminds me, I've got just the thing to jump-start your
memory: the call list from Nevar's cell. Five'll get you ten Darien's
on that list."
After taking down the numbers, he says, "The second to last
number rings a bell, but I don't recognize the tune. Any luck with
Bilkovitch?"
"Only if it's lucky to put your foot in your mouth. How's it
going at your end?"
"The house on Kirkewood is registered to a Forbes
Daddlewood who bought it thirty-two years ago."

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"Thought so. Al's been telling me one lie after another to


protect his sources. Find Daddlewood, and you'll find the cesspool
that's generating the lies."
"Connie's going through the Daddlewoods in the phone
book. So far no one's admitting to knowing him."
"Think you can round him up before 6:30?"
"Unless you're going backward, can always comes before
can't. I'll have your cesspool dredged before 6:30. And in case you
need your car, I had it refilled and dropped off at the Doré. Also
parked Chanlee's on the street in front of her house. As for the rest
of the stuff, I'm still rounding up the papers and the derailleur's not
in yet at the Spoke'n Wheels' south location. They'll call you when it
comes in. Want me to try the north?"
"Don't bother. I'm--
"What do you want it for?"
"To crank up--" I stop myself from saying Dan. "--someone
who's going to help me get Nevar."
"Sugar, I'm already cranked up."

I roll-off the throttle in Dad's driveway.


The garage is closed, but I see light shining through the
starburst windows on the doors. One of the doors lifts as I
approach.
"Come on in," Dad says, ducking under the door after it
comes to a halt part way up.
I step inside, and the door closes. The only other time I've
known him to be in here with the doors closed completely is when
there was a tornado warning. "No bad news about Mr McPickles, I
hope," I say in a hushed tone in spite of myself.
"No, no, don't worry about him. He's in good hands." He
looks and sounds strange, like he's trying to be conspiratorial but
can't quite muster up enough paranoia. "Come, I want to show you
something." He directs me to the wooden box he's been fiddling
with lately. "Try opening it." He hands it to me. "Go ahead,
McPickles can do it."
Although the oblong box is the size of a breadbox--a little
bigger, maybe--it's not all that heavy, so I'd say it's hollow. There
aren't any signs of hinges, nails, staples or other joinery, but the
two end pieces sit inside the four long pieces. I try pushing in on the
ends, but they don't budge.
"You've got the right idea," Dad says. "Here, let me show
you." I hand him the box, and he holds it up to my ear. "Hear
anything?" I shake my head. "McPickles can." He places the box
down on the bench beside us.
"Well, that's hardly fair, Dad. You can't expect me to hear
above or below a certain frequency."

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"True enough, but I do expect you to think beyond the


obvious."
Obviously, at least one of the ends is a door. Scattering my
energy by putting pressure on the whole door doesn't work. So the
catch to open it has to be localized. I push on the center of the end
piece nearest to me. Nothing. Then I try around the edges. Nothing.
Turning the box around, I repeat the process and voilà! a feather
pops out from the bottom. I watch the feather sliding back and forth
about two inches, then tug on it while it's in motion, and the door
opens inward and up. Peering inside, I see a flat piece of metal
lying on the bottom against the other end of the box. I go to reach
inside then pull my hand back.
"Go on." Dad urges, "Nothing's going to strike out at you."
I reach in, and as I grab the metal piece, the far end of the
box springs outward.
Turning the object in my hand, I see that it's a memory card
for a camera. I look quizzically at it then at Dad.
"You wouldn't think an innocuous thing like that would be a
killer, now would you?" he says, shaking his head in dismay.
"That's what the vet found inside McPickles."
The thought of it in my hand makes my skin crawl, and I
nearly drop it. But my revulsion gets deluged by a rising tide of
anger. It doesn't surprise me that a man--a monster--who's never
felt a twinge of guilt would so callously use and abuse life, but it
pisses me off that he's using me to do it.
"Clearly, you know who did this," Dad says with detectable
resignation that mystifies and riles me.
"What's in this cursed thing?" I yell, shaking it at him.
"Your immediate future, I expect," he says like he's uttering a
curse. "I don't have the right equipment here. I could take it to work
if--" Seeing me shake my head, he stops then resumes, "The card
was shrink-wrapped when they took it from McPickles' bowels, so
the data should be retrievable--if the heat or whatever didn't
interfere with it. Fitz keeps up to date with these things, check with
him."
"What is it about him that makes you say his name like it's a
dirty shame?"
"Oh, I like Fitz well enough. But if you'll excuse an old man
for butting in where he doesn't belong, it seems to me that he's
found the right woman, but you haven't found the right man."
"So it was you who told him I'm leaving for Italy?" My
realization is riddled with annoyance.
Picking up on it, he says, "I thought he knew, because I
didn't think my daughter would ever feel helpless enough in her
relationship with any man to play him for a fool to get what she
wants."

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"I wanted more time." He gives me a doubtful look. "To think,


what else?"
"Not about your career, surely? You made up your mind
about that before you met him."
"You couldn't be more--" I stop myself from saying he's
wrong, not because I think he's right, but because I'm not altogether
sure what he's accusing me of. He knows I met Fitz before I made
up my mind about my career. He has to be referring to Nevar, the
unspeakable presence polluting the air I breathe. "You can't--you
don't really--how could you believe that I could even entertain such
feelings for him?" I say the words like I'm trying to punch Nevar out
of the air.
"I've seen you with him, and if I could feel the difference…."
Fiery and chilling, flimsy and powerful, dazzling and murky,
repulsive and desirable, a rush of conflicting feelings attack my
vulnerable side. I lean back against the bench and let them vent
through a myriad of shoddy but easy rationalizations.
"He's a psychopath, Dad."
"Psychopaths are cunning devils like us normal folk, except
their conscience is--"
"Elastic enough to stretch from here to hell."
"--unbound and free to--"
"Run amok."
"--use the difference between right and wrong to satisfy any
desire or obsession. No questions asked. Whenever we catch one
of them with the remains of their victims buried in their gardens,
pickled in the pantry or stored in the freezer, you know who gets
caught off guard, don't you? The neighbors, that's who. 'He was so
quiet and well-behaved, minding his own business and all,' they
say, dumbfounded how they ever missed his raving lunacy.
Psychopaths are like this here box I've made into a toy for
McPickles."
"I catch your drift. The key is inside the box." I run a hand
along the top of the box.
"Not quite. The box is the key."
The thought takes over my field of vision and travels through
my body, making the box dissolve at my fingertips; and I feel myself
locked inside all the events of the past few days. "Like this garage
is the key to you," I say as if in a dream, then dissolve back into my
body.
"You think so, do you?" he says, laughing it off. But his eyes
meet mine in an understanding without a shadow of doubt.
"You live in this garage where the view of the city skyline is
wasted on you. So what was the point of moving across the street
to one of these houses bordering the escarpment?"

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"Don't much care to look at the office buildings when I'm


away from work. It's kinda like bringing your work home with you."
He shrugs away the thought then says, looking wistfully in the
direction of our old house, "You and Eric, you--"
"You made the move for me and Eric?! Sure, Eric and I still
got to go to the same school where it was cool to be smart, but I
remember the move being not just a time-consuming pain in the
neck but a major disruption in my life. My bedroom here never
really became my room. Someone across the street got to have my
room. And as for Eric, well, let's face it, the insects on this side of
the street are the same, Dad." I didn't mean to be accusatory, but
that's how it comes out. I watch him make figure eights with the toe
of his shoe on the floor. The move is something he did for the
woman he loves. But why bother? She would have found a way to
be content with living on the wrong side of the street as long as she
knew there were more people behind her on the social scale than
ahead of her. Softening my tone, I say, "Here, Dad." I hold out the
memory card to him. "Make sure Fitz gets this, ASAP. He's got a
universal reader and can download the contents to my laptop." I
open the door nearest to us. "And keep me posted about
McPickles. If you learn anything, I don't care what it is, let me
know."
"That goes without say. But before you go, Rane, what do
you want me to do with these?" He points to a cardboard box on
the floor under the bench. "The newspapers you wanted? Fitz had
'em dropped off."
"Gotta go." I continue on my way to the Duke. "I'll come back
later with my car and pick them up." I come to a halt and backtrack.
"While I'm here, there's a paper I need to have a look at." I rifle
through the box, looking for the paper Al took with him. "Shoot, it's
not in here." And the papers go back sequentially to last Monday.
This is something Lulie can do at the library. Here I go again, losing
my focus. Screw that. The one thing Al's consistent about is his
need to propagate his view of life, liberty and the pursuit of
happiness in a diabolically sadistic mad world. There's something in
that paper he feels the need to keep to himself. Something about
the con artists plying him with fakes in return for his family's life
savings, freedom and happiness, I'll wager.
I call Lulie and get her wheels turning. Then I rev up the
Duke, but the wheels can't roll without gunning down my mother.
Standing defiantly and waving a corkscrew in front of the
Duke, she hollers over its roar, "Tori Rane! You come inside at
once and have something to eat!" She steps closer. Uh-oh, she's
eyeing the front tire. "It's bad enough that you want to give me a
heart attack by gallivanting around after murderers and what have
you on this fancy suicide contraption, but now you want to worry me

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to death by making me watch you waste away. Look at you! You're


all drawn out and nothing but skin and bones!"
"I'm wearing my riding gear, for crumbs' sake."
She cups a hand around her ear. "Shut that thing off! I can't
hear you."
Dad sneaks up behind her, flings his arms around her waist
and nibbles on her neck while he talks to her. I swerve past them.
Thank the gods that she picked a guy she still gets off on calling
Smooch.
They don't box each other in. Nope, they open the doors for
each other to worlds beyond themselves. Unlike me. I feel totally
boxed in. And I know the precise moment the walls started closing
in on me: When I first laid eyes on Nevar. It's time I kicked the
bejazus out of his box. But like McPickles' toy, to do that I have to
get inside it first. Hell, isn't that precisely where I'm at already? I
glance at my watch. It's only quarter after four. Just enough time to
ransack his place. Better that than ransacking my brain the way I've
been doing, to find the details, the pieces of truth that will link up
into a noose around his godforsaken neck.
I pull over between two SUVs on a quiet residential street
and look up one side and down the other. Normal houses with
normal trees and normal kids chalk painting on a cracked sidewalk,
then darting between the vehicles lining the street. My gaze lingers
on the SUVs, one red, the other grey, sandwiching me and the
Duke. They both have child safety seats secured in the back. Is all
of life an oxymoron? How many unsuspected sex abusers and
other offenders of the gods are crouched inside this pretty picture of
normalcy? Ah well, I get out Nevar's phone and call his office to
light a fire away from his house.
"I'd like to speak to Mr Nevar, please," I say.
"To whom am I speaking?" his receptionist says as surely
and indifferently as a computer.
"Lydia Cranston."
"I'm sorry, but Mr Nevar is unavailable at the moment. Would
you like me to have him call you?"
"Is he in court?"
"No, he's with a client at the moment…." Not hard to tell why
he hired her: She lies like no one would have to pay her to do it. So
why the pause? I answer that with images of rusty wheels turning in
her head as she stares at his number on the call display. "If you'll
give me your numb--Is this Rane?" So he has alerted his troops.
With the phone still on, I tuck it behind the right front wheel
of the grey SUV. Now go ahead and trace it, Nevar.

Fitz's footprint is still on the back door at Nevar's place, and


the shattered glass remains where it fell. The chaos is undisturbed.

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That's about as comforting as knowing that this back door is


becoming as familiar to me as my own.
Starting with the living room, I turn everything upside-down
and inside out searching for that one you're-dead-if-you-don't-get-it
detail he warned me to look out for. His thoughts slither out from
under the rocks in his head, but he's right about the lethal power of
an overlooked detail. I'm after the one he's overlooked. I race from
room to room too furiously to savor the wicked mess I'm leaving
behind. But I pause long enough to help myself to some
mixed-berry yogurt and chocolate cake in the fridge. I wash the
chow down with bottled water and ransack my way to the
basement.
The wide, carpeted stairs turn at a right angle two-thirds of
the way down, then open into a large, laidback den with a
pillow-laden sofa and chairs forming an arc that faces a
maple-paneled wall adjacent to the stairs. This isn't a den, it's a
media room. It's even money his child porn collection is stored
behind that wall. But what other cherished evils are collected there?
I run a hand along a seam between two of the panels, but they
don't open up. I slide over to the next seam then stop. He wouldn't
get up and open this manually. Not him. He'd use a remote. I throw
myself down on the end of the sofa with a cushy cube Ottoman in
front of it. No remote in sight, which means he keeps it hidden in
something within arm's reach. Like this Ottoman. I reach for it and
freeze at the sound of footsteps above me.
His footsteps.

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CHAPTER 17

Shit, shoot, shite!


I left the basement door open! I make a mad dash for the
stairs. Halfway up, his shadow crosses the doorway, and the scent
of him burns through to my throat. On these stairs, he has the
upper hand. I nix the idea of shutting off the lights. He's the only
one who knows the way around down here. I jump over the
banister, leap onto the glass coffee table and over the sofa to a
door leading who knows where? With the light from the media
room, I glimpse a pool table and snatch up a cue. Then I close the
door behind me, dive under the table and keep my eyes peeled on
the door. Fruk, under this thing I can't hear anything but myself. My
heart sounds like it's pounding outside my chest.
Where are you, Nevar? You bastard.
Is that my body rattling or a doorknob turning? I hold my
breath and hear a latch clicking.
Suddenly, the lights come on and Nevar says in a gotcha
voice from behind me, "Well, well, if it isn't Bambi."
Without wasting time looking at him, I scramble to get out
and whack my head on the apron. Staying low this time, I spring out
and lunge for the door. It locks as I grab the knob. The remote! He
has it. I drop my hand, but tighten the other one around the cue and
turn to face him. Not that there's much to see. The red felt on the
table basks in light carefully measured never to be audacious,
always to be invisible to whatever is inside it. We stand at opposite
sides of the shadow cast by the hooded lamp that begins to rise
slowly.
His casual clothes, flushed face and gnarly expression don't
look like transplants from the office.
"Now down to business," he says with the ease of someone
who has control of the whip. He's too cocky to deny himself the
pleasure of giving me a sadistic smile. He walks towards me,
glaring in the subdued light, and every muscle in my body flexes.
But he stops on the other side of the table. As far as my body is
concerned, though, he hasn't stopped anything. The small patch of
felt between us is hardly worth claiming as a piece of turf or
anything else, yet it's lying in wait to become the grave of the one
who doesn't claim it.
"Business? So that's what you call it when you lock people in
your basement."

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Without changing his dour expression, he says, "Suppose I


rephrase that: Let's get down to that talk you said you wanted."
"Down?! Just being with you, Nevar, is scraping the bottom
of hell." And just saying his name feels like I'm eating a turd
sandwich. "Where is Chanlee?"
His eyebrows shoot up. "You put your friend in harm's way
by getting her involved in this, and now you're asking me where she
is?!" He starts out quietly and ends up yelling.
What the hell?!
I hurl the cue at him, but he ducks and the spear sails out
the door behind him. I grab another one from the rack.
He throws the remote on the table and smacks his forehead
with the heels of his palms. "How could you lose sight of the
dangers involved? You know she's a cop."
"What have you done with her?" My low, menacing tone is
totally lost on him.
He looks me straight in the eye and says, "You know where
she is." What's his angle? "What are you doing messing around
here? She needs your help." He holds out his arms, palms down,
as if his words need a push to get through to me.
My adrenaline-pumped body is wary of words. And him.
"Your concern for her is very touching, Nevar. But what did
you do to her after you lured her into your dirty little tryst in the
mountains, huh?"
First he looks dumbfounded, then his face lights up like he
just sent himself a news flash. "Who told you I went with her to the
mountains?"
"You did." I toss the cue from hand to hand, ready to spear
his trap shut.
"I didn't do any such thing." He takes off his jacket and drops
it on the table railing. I zip up the last few inches on my jacket even
though I'm getting hot under the collar.
"You've killed her, haven't you? You have, or you wouldn't
see any percentage in denying the two of you called this morning."
He grabs hold of the rail and extends his arms like he's doing
push ups off the table. I seize the remote. He just stares at me like
he's not sure which planet he's on. Then he bows his head, and
with his gaze locked on the shadow he's casting on the playing
surface, he says, "Let's see if I'm getting this straight: You think
Chanlee and I phoned you this morning, and after informing you I
was with her in the mountains, I proceeded to kill her and obliterate
her body--no doubt after I violated it enough times to satisfy my
depraved lust. But I had to do it all like Superman on speed in order
to rush back here to do the same to you." He shakes his head in
disbelief. "And that makes sense to you?"

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"Nothing you do makes sense." So why is it myself I'm


doubting? I'd like to say it's because something about that call this
morning keeps echoing in my head like an itch I can't reach. But it's
more than that. Hell, whenever I'm around him, reality takes on a
strange hue, like I'm stranded inside the infrared end of the
spectrum. And what do I see? The color of his hair and the outline
of his chest muscles sculpted by a snug T-shirt. Or maybe it's even
more primitive than that. Like the scent of him. The scent of a
predator closing in on the prey.
This box in my hand is the safest way out of here. After
snickering at my attempts to figure the thing out, he says, "Your
version of the truth has a hole in it small enough to be overlooked
by someone who doesn't want to see it, but big enough
nevertheless to turn the phone call, the mountains, her torture and
murder and my depravity into fantasy. I was in court all morning,
and a judge and jury of your peers can attest to that fact."
"And I suppose Kenny is a fantasy too?!"
"He could be if you didn't know where he is. But you do,
Bambi."
"I what?!" I lean so far forward I lose my balance and have to
push myself back off the table. Fruk, he's completely loony tunes,
yet he's whipping my butt. Because I'm letting him get to me. They
don't call him The Snowman for sucking lemons. There isn't a man
inside that facade. There's only white powder.
"You're the key to Kenny's disappearance. You have to know
that much by now." He grits his teeth, grabs the hair on top of his
head with both hands and turns around on his heels. "Who knew
you were going to the mountains last Tuesday?"
"Besides you and all your goons?"
"Dammitall, Rane, how could you let her get into their
hands?" The dismay in his voice increases with the volume, just as
my anger stalls in the face of my increasing confusion about where
he's coming from. "Now the risk to you is twofold."
"I can take care of myself."
"Damned right. But not your friends, evidently."
"She's no fool. She doesn't have to consult any damned
book full of legal mumbo-jumbo to know the difference between
right and wrong."
"So? It doesn't alter the fact that unlike you, she never had
sufficient time to evaluate the risks. You shouldn't have let her out
of your sight. You should have--" He stops suddenly and looks at
me like he can't quite get me in focus. "You didn't get concussed
recently, now did you?"
I don't have anything to say to that. What does he care,
anyway? He's enraptured by the sound of his own voice. Fine. The
more he talks, the greater the chances are that he'll trip over his

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ego with some thoughtless gesture, some detail careless enough to


allow me to escape.
"Given what you profess to believe I'm capable of as a
degenerate reprobate," he bellows, "it didn't trouble you that she
was with me?"
"If Chanlee were here, she'd be the first to tell you that
friendship doesn't mean you get to make the decisions for your
friends. I tried to stop her from keeping her date with you."
"When?"
"When what?"
"When was I supposed to have had this date with her?"
I wave both him and the question away.
"She told me this morning that she was with you, and I have
absolutely no reason to doubt her or to believe you." That sounded
dead on in my head, but it comes out sounding like the meaning
died in transit.
"You don't believe me because you're lying to yourself."
"Where is she, Nevar?"
"I haven't seen her since yesterday afternoon. Maldoon
shadowed her thinking she was you, but we lost her. Double
checking, we found that it had to be her because you were in your
apartment letting your daisies run wild."
"Really? I was with--" I clam up. My mouth twitches to
contradict him. Instead, I say, "You lost her?! I keep asking you
where she is, and you have the balls to give me this big song and
dance about how I'm a stupid, thoughtless, dangerous friend, when
the real answer is that you don't know because you're such a dumb
fruk you lost her."
I motion to throw the cue at him, and while he's ducking, I
hurl it.
Contact.
Well, almost. It rips through his shirt, grazing his right
shoulder.
I think the words hurt more, because he ignores the blood
soaking his ripped shirt and shouts, "Do you honestly believe I
would endanger my lascivious appetites by calling to inform you
what I was up to with her? You amaze me, you really do. That you
could allow petty emotions to do your thinking for you in a situation
of this import." He rubs his chin. "Unless…." He snaps his fingers
and casts his gaze upwards as though he's thanking the devils only
he can see. "Unless you've been letting your judgment be clouded
by jealousy. That's it, isn't it? You removed yourself psychologically
from her because you can't brook the idea of her being with me."
We both throw our head back and laugh. Why not? Neither
of us means it. His laughter sends a chill up my spine, though,
because I'm only willing to go so far in humoring his insanity. Like

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every other psycho, he's too easily seduced by his own cunning.
That makes him vulnerable to flattery. The flattery of fear, the
psycho's ultimate aphrodisiac. As his intended victim, all I have to
do is show him my fear, the more the merrier, but I'll be damned if I
will. I'm so fed up with him that so help me, I'm relishing the thought
of killing him.
"I should be flattered," he says, all smiles and chuckles.
"But--"
He stops at the sound of my cell ringing.
I pull out the phone from my jacket.
"Fitz?" he asks.
Yes, it's Fitz, but I slip the cell back into my pocket and keep
my jaw locked. The ringing vibrates through me.
"Let him go, he's not right for you."
"Shut up. You don't know what you're talking about."
"You wish. I know he's aware of what's happening between
you and me, and you didn't have to tell him. And, I know you." He
points an accusing finger at me and draws out the last word long
enough to make me cringe. "Why are you taking off for Italy? Why?
You're smart enough to know that your heart is in two places, but
you don't have the sense to beware of any love that kills your
dreams."
That one hits too close to the bone. I look down and shake
my head thoughtfully. He's just a snowman seeing me in a false
light as he melts imperceptibly into the plush carpet. "Is this how
you get your kicks, huh, Nevar? By locking your victims in your
basement and torturing them ad patres by making them listen to
your torporific speeches?"
"Tsk, tsk, such a sad, sad song of freedom. Nevertheless,
it's merely a shoddy disguise for a cri de coeur. You're never going
to be free until you stop arguing with yourself about what you want.
You've got yourself half-convinced that you don't know. But you
know all right. You just don't know how to get it without feeling
guilty."
"What I want is none of your business."
"Bambi, that's not true. You want me."
My face burns as I stare at him, transfixed. My hair would be
standing on end at the back of my neck, if it weren't glued down
with sweat.
"Your feelings for me are so strong," he rushes on, "I'd have
to be dead not to be aware of them."
"Be it from me to make a psychopath understand the
difference between love and hate, but--"
"And you would know all about that, because you love him
and hate me. Strange, the way you love and hate. I'm the one
getting all your passion."

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Passion. The word grates against my soul. I don't know how


to fight him on these grounds without exposing more of myself. If I
defend myself, he'll learn what I'm really thinking; and if I attack
him, he'll know what I'm really feeling. Are there any words powerful
enough to stop him from wheedling his way under my skin?
He goes on, "It takes courage to face up to your--"
"Oh, so now I'm a coward on top of everything else!"
"Yes! Because you squander your courage on everything
except what really matters. As desperately and fiercely as any
warrior who fights herself, you hold Fitz in your heart as a hostage
to avoid facing your true feelings."
"If my true feelings came to life, Nevar, I wouldn't be trapped
in your basement listening to your garbage, because you'd be
dead."
"The point is, Rane, I'm alive and your feelings aren't." His
hair came unstuck with his temper, and he pushes the wayward
locks back with his fingers. He winces and looks down at his
shoulder. "I should get this cleaned up," he says quietly like his
fingers pushed back his temper too. "Let's continue this upstairs. I
don't feel safe with you down here." Holding his left hand over his
wound, he gives me a sardonic smile and walks towards me.
I grab another cue so fast the rack comes with it and crashes
to the floor. He comes to a standstill, but my heart races faster.
Seeing me touch the remote in my pocket, he says, "That
won't unlock the door to your mind where you've trapped the truth
about yourself." He resumes walking and corners the table. This is
it: to the death. The blood rushing through my veins alarms every
part of my being. I armor my balance by stepping my right foot back
and turning slightly.
"If my nearness is making you feel crowded inside your
skin," he says with infernal calmness, "then leave. The door's not
locked."
"Like hell!" But I glance over my shoulder at the door as
though I believe him.
"I opened it before I gave you the remote. No one's been
holding you here but yourself."
He keeps coming at me. I eye the other door, but he'd beat
me to it. So I step back, turn the knob and almost fall out the door. I
don't trust any of this. He's too eager to get me out of here. The real
trap must be upstairs. I vault over the sofa onto the coffee table and
over the banister. He stays tight behind me like he's pulling my
strings. I turn suddenly, hoping I can catch him off guard and help
him chase his balance down the stairs with a quick, forceful shove.
But he got my telegraph and blocks me. The only way to get him off
balance is to keep him talking.

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"We still haven't had that talk you promised, Snow White.
Where are you from?" I manage to sound like I'm dying to hear
what he has to say.
"Not far from Christmas."
"And my painting?"
He looks up at me with a certain amusement, like he's
watching a fool call his bluff. "Chanlee was going to bring it with her
on Sunday."
"I'm sure. Who's blood did you whitewash off your floor?"
"His name was Marc Bernardin."
"What did he do to deserve being trashed and obliterated?
What was he threatening to kibosh besides your status as a fine,
upstanding member of the legal community?"
"He's in a better place, the gods willing, but there's a chance
that Chanlee is still with us. A chance, Rane, for you to make things
right between the two of you and your conscience."
"Where's Kenny?"
"We have reason to believe he's in or around Banff."
"What reason?" His answer is in his silence. "You've had
contact with his kidnappers?" He remains silent, but this time, his
answer is in his face.
"Leave Kenny to me and the police. Get Chanlee.
Fortunately for you, I like your friend, or I'd make you stay and
clean up your mess."
"You're dreaming, Snow White."
"Suit yourself. I'll bill you for the cleanup. And while you're
arguing with yourself about how you're going to get out of paying,
ask yourself why you keep pushing your friends to the back of the
line."
"Golly-gee, I can't imagine why anyone would want to push
you back."
"I have nothing to fear, do I, Bambi? Because I'm not your
friend." He starts to smile, then in a flash his face becomes cold
and hostile as he glowers at me. No, his eyes are focused on the
top of the stairs.
Keep talking, Nevar, keep talking.
"Behind you," he says from deep in his throat.
This time I telegraph him the body message that I'm turning
around to look. Instead, I deliver a back jab with my elbow to the
side of his head and strike his chest with my knee. Hard and
without compromising my intent with hesitation. He grabs for the
railing, but I knifehand his arm. As he falls back onto the landing, I
step down, ready to put the whole force of my weight and fury into
kicking him into the Elysian Fields where he can pick daisies to his
miserable heart's content. But from his feeble groan, I'd say he's

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gone somewhere else. Should I bother putting a boot through his


face?
Suddenly out of the corner of my eye I see someone's foot
coming at me.
The Hiker! Nevar's secret weapon.
Instead of blocking his kick, I help it along by yanking down
on his leg and using the increased momentum to veer him onto the
rubbish heap cluttering the landing. Along the way, his head
whacks against the newel post. He's out cold by time he lands face
down on Nevar's chest. Blood from the gash in his head soaks
Nevar's T-shirt. ¡Qué làstima! I lift the keys and wallet from the
Hiker's pockets. The car keys are for a Honda. I shake my head. An
old Soviet-made tank is more his speed. I open the wallet, then just
as quickly throw it at him. The photo on the license fits his general
description, but it's not of him. My gaze drifts to Nevar. The aging
bruises on his face paint his expression all the colors of the
rainbow. He's close enough to touch, close enough to share the
same breath with and he's close enough to kill without any effort.
But we're worlds apart.
If I take his miserable shit life, he'll win in death because in
murdering him I'll be forfeiting my freedom. But he's only part of the
equation. More than wanting him dead, I want Chanlee alive.
The Hiker groans and tries to get up. I give him a goodnight
blow to the head with my boot.

Bounding up the stairs, I try to savor the scene of the two of


them crumpling on the landing, but sobering images of Chanlee
crash the party.
I grab a knife from the kitchen, shove it up the sleeve of my
jacket then get Fitz on the phone as I race outside.
"I have to find Chanlee," I huff, running down the driveway. A
landscaper's truck is blocking the house directly across the street.
Good. It'll give me a chance to make a mad dash to the Duke
without anyone spotting me. Suddenly, a long, bald twig of a man
appears around the front of the truck. I dodge behind a juniper. The
tip of the knife jabs my arm.
"She's with Nevar," Fitz says over the phone.
"No, she's never been with him." The landscaper takes a
swig from a bottle he retrieves from inside the truck.
"Unlike you."
"He's decked out on his basement stairs."
"You didn't kill him?!"
"No, Fitz, it's not your lucky day. If he tries to leave this plane
of existence, they'll just throw him back down here as another
reject. Never mind that, he's using her as bait."
"And you're letting him get away with all this shit?!"

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"What exactly have I let him get away with, huh, Fitz?"
"Let's not get into that again. The best place to find her is in
the messages she left us. Even if someone was butting cigarettes
out on her eyeballs to force her to parrot their bullshit, she'd still find
a way of planting a secret message for us."
"I know she…she sounded like she was trying to tell me
something on one of the messages, but then she sneezed."
"And she sneezed on one of her messages to me. What do
you make of it?"
"Hmm."
"Me too. But hey, cutie-patootie, listen, I've got more dope
on your boss' landlord. Daddlewood's in Switzerland visiting his
new grandson. Anyway, that's the story we got from Bersa, his
next-door neighbor. And get this: she's madder 'n hell at him
because she can't understand why he'd rather rent out the place
than pay her to look after it." He laughs like someone just told him a
sick joke.
"Yes, yes," I say impatiently. Nevar's going to be up and
running after me any minute.
"Don't worry, with her pointing the way, how could we not
find her?" What way? Hell, I'm the one who's lost.
The twig finally disappears behind the truck again. Yes! "I'm
heading back to the Doré."
"Don't you want the scoop on Darien?"
"What do you think?! He's one of Nevar's patsies."
"You could say that. His name goes with one of the numbers
on Nevar's call list. He's the proud owner of Tildy's Rent a Dick." He
pauses to laugh. When I don't join him, he adds, "He and his wife
Tildy are prying eyes. They're the peepers behind Til-D
Investigative Services."
I run onto the street. The edge of the knife blade slides up
and down as I hoof it, tickling my arm in the creepiest way and
sending shivers up and down my spine.
"When she's not invading other people's privacy," he goes
on, "she's protecting it by offering her services as a body guard for
visiting big shots. I've heard some buzz about her, but I've never
met the musclehead. Though I think I crossed paths with him once
at the track. If he's the guy I'm thinking of, he's hard to miss
because he's--"
"Damn to hell! One of Nevar's neighbors just spotted me." I
hang up.
I should have known the neighborhood watch would be out
to greet me behind that truck. At least the old snoop can't trace me
through the Duke. I stashed it in a porte-cochère at a house two
blocks away. One of the joys of swinging around with the Duke is
that he gets welcomed in all the best places.

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At the bottom of the hill, I slash the tires of the Hiker's


'borrowed' Honda, ditch the knife, then try calling Dan while I jog to
the Duke. He must know something. After all, he spent the other
night tongue-tangoing with her.
"How's it coming, Dan?"
"I'm at work," he says like he's been getting nothing but
static on the phone all day.
"Sorry for interrupting your work, but has Chanlee been in
touch with you since Fitz and I--"
"What bug got up his butt last night?"
"Don't mind him, or me for that matter, we're worried about
Chanlee. Have you heard from h--"
"He made a point of being personally offensive, what with
holding up a yardstick to me and such."
"I'm trying to get hold of Chanlee. Have you--"
"No! How many times do I have to say it?!" The vehemence
of his tone hardly goes with milquetoast. "Don't mind me, it's been
that kind of day. Could you use another set of eyes looking for
her?"
"That'd be great, Dan. Where'd you like to meet?"
"The Parc? I'm such a git today I forgot my glasses at home.
These contacts feel like they're trying to stitch themselves to my
eyeballs."
"Glasses? I didn't know you wore glasses."
"Only for reading. But if you'll give me an hour--make that
two--I'll have the paperwork cleared off my desk."
"Okay. I'll call my boss and cancel work tonight."
I get hold of Al while I'm nesting on the Duke.
"Sorry, Al, but I can't make it back to work tonight."
"No problem," he says, not sounding the least perturbed. "I
will show you his masterpiece, and you can toddle off again. It
should only take a few minutes. You can spare a few minutes, yes?
Anytime this evening--"
"Al, I…."
"--will do."
"Actually, Al--"
"Smashing. Toodleoo."
"--that doesn't work for me--Shit! He's hung up."
Well, Caravaggio and his tempestuous love affair with
himself are just going to have to wait till I find out what's happened
to Chanlee.
Instead of shutting down the phone, I play back her
messages. Over and over, and each time the same things separate
themselves from the pack: Baaa; the hat fits into the painting in the
locker; this dress is a red flag; I'm off to my big date with

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you-know-who and a sneeze. They don't mean anything by


themselves, and together they, well, mean even less. Baaa what?
This dress? What dress? You-know-who? I'm not so sure anymore
her date was with Nevar. Who then? The painting in the locker? I've
been through both lockers how many times? And the sneeze. It
sounds like, I don't know, like it's supposed to mean something
else.
If only the questions ended there. Or even started there.
Nevar said that yesterday afternoon I was running around
my apartment in my pjs. But I was with Lulie, paying my respects to
the Duke. There are thousands of credible things he could have
said if his purpose were simply to mind-fruggle me. Why that
particular lie? Mind you, he has a clever way of using the truth to
create lies. Or is he using lies to tell the truth? It's within the realm
of possibility that he could have been telling the truth about being in
court. But he was with Chanlee when she called this morning. Even
if I were enough of a lamebrain not to recognize his voice, I couldn't
mistake hers. Never. It was Chanlee, my friend.
My friend who could be dead because of me.
I cover my face with my hands.
"No," I say, lifting up my head, "that's what Nevar's counting
on me to believe."
Where are you, Chanlee? If you have any say on the matter,
there's cola nearby.
Oh, that's a big help. That narrows the choices down to
about the same number as Nevar's lies.
My cell rings.
"This is Pete at the Spoke'n Wheels. The front derailleur you
wanted is in."
"Thanks, I'll be right there."
Might as well, it's just a little offering to a friend who's down
in the dumps. I need him with me in spirit as well as body. He's
besotted with that bike, and if love can't embolden his spirit, I don't
know what will.
As soon as I walk into the store, Pete makes a gun with his
hand, points it at me and fires with a click of his tongue. "The
derailleur," he says. Then he reaches under the counter.
I stare at the derailleur. "It's exactly like the other one."
His long chin lengthens like his protruding lower lip is
suddenly too heavy to hold up.
"I mean, Pete, that it's exactly like the one I already have."
His long, narrow cheeks follow his chin, but his eyes remain
riveted on me.
"So the one I have isn't broken?!" I snatch it from him.
"Not unless you did something strange to it since I saw it."
"You could've told me, you jerk."

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"You never asked me if it was broken, you asked if I could


get you another one."
Oh, shut up!
"Are you buying it for your brother?" he asks as I turn to
leave.
"You know my brother?"
"You kiddin'? I know every cycling freak in town. You look
like him, but you don't act much like him." He shakes his head in
pity. "Danno's a great guy."
"Danno?!"
"Yeah, Danno Istenly."
"May I use your phonebook, please?"
I look up the address of Peace Tereny Insurance, where Dan
works. I've been taking him so much for granted, I have no idea
when something's broken in his life. But something's definitely
amiss with him. Ten to one it has something to do with Chanlee.
Something, something, something. Now I'm really onto something.
Latkey Street, hmm, that's no further than the Doré.
The closest I can get to Peace Tereny with the Duke is
across the street. But from this distance through the failing sunlight,
I see that the place is closed.
Peering through the glass door, I see a woman from behind,
her oh-so blonde ponytail wagging over the back of the chair and
her runners jiggling up on the desk to the rhythm of something
shaking up the world inside the book. I knock on the glass, and she
jumps to her feet, hiding the book behind her, uh, him. This
ample-rumped babe has a beard. Looking at me like I'm not worth
being concerned about, he puts the book--something by André
Gide--down on the desk, then shakes his head and taps his watch.
I shout Dan's name, but he keeps shaking his head then wags a
finger at me. I write Dan Istenly on the back of a receipt I find in my
wallet and press it up against the window. He cranes his neck to
read the note then resumes shaking his head, turns away, picks up
a waste paper basket and dumps it into a bin beside the desk. I
knock on the door again. He uncrumples a piece of paper, writes on
it and holds it up. "You just missed him," it says. I must look like the
kid Santa Claus missed, because he adds, "555-5370."
I smile my thanks, but 555-5370 isn't Dan's cell, and he
doesn't have a home number. And it's not the listed number for
Peace Tereny.
"Hello, Dan?" I say after punching in the number.
"Yes," he says, sounding stranger than ever.
"I'm standing like a dork outside your office. Thought I could
save time if we rendezvoused here." I pause to let him pitch in his
two cents' worth, but he doesn't say anything, so I add, "So much
for thinking outside the box. I'll be right there."

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"Who is this?" a complete stranger replies.


"Good question: Who is this?"
"We both know I'm Dan. Who ar--?"
"Dan Istenly?"
"Yes," he says impatiently.
"And you sell insurance at Peace Tereny?"
"For the last time, who is this?"
"Lydia Cranston. I'm a friend of Dan Istenly, the guy who
works at Peace Tereny. Are you having me on, Dan?" I laugh. "You
are!"
"Nut case," he says and hangs up.

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CHAPTER 18

Danny my boy, you're really beginning to interest me. More than I


ever thought you could, and a whole helluva lot less than you'd like
me to, I'll wager.
I look both ways on the one-way street and start crossing at
the first sign of an opening that allows me to hop, dodge, dodge
and jump to the other side. That's almost as dangerous as crossing
the path of a psychopath. But I need the cyber cafe on this side of
the street. Inside the joint, I plug in Al's notebook and look up
Peace Tereny, which links me to the web site of their insurance
broker, Dan Istenly. Holy hell! The photo on the banner isn't the
Dan Istenly I know. Know?! Obviously I don't know anyone by that
name. Did this nameless stranger seduce Chanlee into giving up
her life?
Dan?! Uh-uh.
Mind you, he's not really Dan.
With some people the action seldom takes place on the
surface. Then again, with him there is no surface, only the illusion
of one. Stand him up against anything, and he blends in. His center
seems to shift around in the mid-ground where everything is a
shade of grey. Like his apartment. But grey is only an illusion
created by the blending of opposing extremes: black and white.
Stanley's got to help me get inside apartment 56.
I hop on the bike and let the Duke do the screaming for me.
All the way to the front of the Doré. Running to the back, I see
Dan's SUV. Damn, he beat me here. I backtrack to the super's
office.
"Stop being a turd, Stanley," I say, knocking on his door. "I
know you're in there, I can hear the football game on TV. Do you
want to ride the Duke, or not?"
The door opens. "Who do I have to kill?" he says, leaning an
elbow on the jamb. Hairs poke out from a hole in the sweat-stained
underarm of his T-shirt.
I push past him into his postage stamp office and look at his
butt extending to infinity in the mirror-tiled room. "Know what,
Stanley?" I yell over the TV. "This whole room would really come
together with a punch if you covered the ceiling with mirrors too."
He looks up. "Ya think so? That bimbo I used to live
with--You know the one, that if tits was used for brains, she'd make
Shakespeare look like a pinhead. Anyhows, the dumb broad talked

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me out of it. Shows ya what a soft touch I am. Whaddaya want me


to accommodate you with?"
"I need to have a look around number 56 without him being
there."
His face changes abruptly from an open-faced pie to a steel
trap door. "Sister, you're way outta line. My old man owns this
yuppie dump, but if he was to get wind a me getting into that
crappola, I'd be out like this." He slaps his butt.
"So what are you going to do? Tattle on yourself?"
"That jerkoff bum sure as shootin' will. He already stung me
once when he caught me giving my ex a little love tap. Me and her
was just minding our own business having a little lover's spat, that's
all, like everybody does, eh, and he had to go and--"
"Well, here's your chance to get back at him, and get to
stroke the Duke into the ride of your life." His face begins to melt
into mush. "All you have to do is get him down into the
lockerroo--Shit, shoot, shite!" I smack my forehead. "The hat fits in
the painting in the locker!"
Not mine or Dan's.
Chanlee's locker!
"You lose some screws riding around on that there bike, or
somethin'?" he says, giving me a look about as stupid as I feel.
"Seems so, but I think I just found them."
He shrugs. "Supposin', now just supposin', that I was to let
you into his pad. What's you gonna do in there?"
"You want the truth?"
He nods. "The honest Injun truth."
"The truth is that I don't know. I'm looking for something
that'll tie him to the disappearance of my friend."
"That prick's snatched Fitz?!" He punches a hand into his
palm.
"Chanlee."
"Ahh, she isn't no more than a whatchamacallit--" He snaps
his fingers. "--a decoy. Just like you. He's always going around
brownnosing you to get to Fitz."
"Uh, all you have to do is tell Dan that someone broke into
his locker."
He shakes his head. "I only just got done fixing the bloody
door, and I don't need you or no other wise guy jacking around with
it." He eyes me like he's about to make a lewd proposition. "How
long would I getta ride?"
"An hour. But not solo."
He scratches the bald spot at the back of his head. "I got a
parcel pickup card here for him. And the postal outlet doesn't close
till 9:00. Butttttt…."
"Two hours on the Duke?" I offer.

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"Make it three and solo."


"You're a gem, Stanley--"
"That's me, Carbone Man."
"--but don't let him get away without ensuring he's going for
the parcel."
"How do I do that without a baseball bat?"
"Put on the same act you always do whenever anyone asks
you to fix something around here."
He smiles and pulls up his pants with both hands. "You're
some pushy broad, you know that?"
"Don't do anything until I get up to my apartment. I'll call you
from there."

"Okay, Stan," I say from my apartment, "go for it. And call
me at this number as soon as he leaves."
"Geronimo and out."
I stare at the zero displayed in my answering machine.
Okay. Nothing new here or anywhere else in the place. Not okay.
Nevar said I was here yesterday afternoon. So he must have been
here. I race into the bathroom and grab my blue pjs from the
laundry hamper. The smell of stale mentholated lavender makes
my skin crawl.
What other filthy surprises do you have in store for me, huh,
Dan?
When Nevar was snooping around in here, I'll bet he found
one of the surprises meant for little ol' me. I jump onto the vanity to
check out the ceiling fan again. This time, I unplug the fan, undo the
bracket holding it in place and pull it out. Nothing. The hole isn't big
enough to stick my head through, so I jump down, gather up a
flashlight and a hand mirror then use them to see past the obvious.
And voilà, I find fingerprints in the dust around all four sides of the
hole. Just leftovers from Nevar's find. Or did he plant something
here?
The phone pulsates against my heart.
"The coast's clear," Stanley says. I run to the bedroom
window and catch a glimpse of Dan's SUV turning into the alley.
"I'm on my way up to the fifth."
"10-4."

Outside Dan's apartment, I pat Stan on the back. "Good


work, Carbone Man."
He stands guard in front of the door like his pants are too
tight. "I'll stay posted down at the elevator." He keeps looking at me
like I'm madder than a hatter, but he's not quite sure what to do
about it.
"Who lives in 53?" I ask.

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"Mrs Sillicum."
"How long has she lived here?"
He shrugs. "She came wit the joint like the silverfish when
my old man bought it."
"Her apartment faces the front. Who knows what comings
and goings she's seen."
"Forget it. You won't learn nothing from a nutso case with a
gazillion dolls that soon as you touch them they squawk, 'I want to
go to the potty.'"
"It's just that--"
"Finito." He cuts the air with his hands. "Whatever bright
ideas you got cooking for me 'n that weird old broad, the answer's
NO. And don't you go messing with her on your lonesome, or you'll
wind up a permanent guest at her tea parties, stuffed like the rest of
'em. 10-4?"
I nod, step inside Dan's apartment then shake my head. For
her, him, Nevar, Chanlee, Al, Dan and myself. Fitz too, because I
can't be with him. When this is all over, I'm not getting out of bed
until I've had too much of everything I'm not getting now.
An uneasiness overtakes me as I race from room to room
finding nothing but what I've always found when I've visited him: a
stylishly comfortable place for a stylishly comfortable kind of guy
with uncomplicated tastes. Everything appears perfectly normal.
Inside and out the tidy cupboards and drawers. Even his humdrum
underwear is neatly folded and lined up in perfect rows. It's the
perfect part that's disturbing. Leaning against the bedroom door
jamb, I stare as though in a trance at his slippers lined up at a
perfect right angle to the bed. This place with its pleasantly lived-in
look and feel of security and stability has to be a ruse. The faint
sound of music wafts through the unnerving stillness. Maybe my
paranoia is making a jackass of me. Quick, Rane, think past the
meticulously designed illusion of homey comfort. I squeeze my
eyes shut and focus in on what's missing: There are no eyeglasses
anywhere, no dirty laundry; no plants; no waste; no phone; no
business documents or letterhead, not so much as a shred of paper
that ties him to Peace Tereny and no photographs. The combined
absences give the place the static intimacy and generic neutrality of
a show home.
But there's something even more important missing. A
mundane detail, really, that's ultra creepy in its implications.
His TV isn't hooked up to cable.
Heating and lighting come with the rent, that's one of the
reasons I chose the Doré. The phone and cable are extra. He's set
this place up so he doesn't have any utility bills. Nothing that might
conflict with the real Dan Istenly and blast this phony creep out of
the water into the real world.

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No one lives here, it's the perfect hideout for a poser. Better
still, it's the perfect abode for a ghost intent upon haunting the thin
edge of the wedge.
So who is this man who pretends to live here, what devil
sent him and what does he want with me and Chanlee? I look
around the bedroom. This is all very pretty, Danno, but where are
you hiding the real stuff? Behind the ceiling fan in the bathroom? I
rush into the bathroom and attack the fan with a vengeance. I
unscrew the bracket and yank out the fan. The phone sounds the
alarm. Don't let it be Stanley. Crud, it's him!
"The jerkoff didn't get the parcel," Stanley says urgently.
"Stall him." I feel around the edges of the hole and my
fingers hit pay dirt. It feels like a notebook, but I can't reach far
enough to grasp it.
"Whaddaya think I'm trying to do?"
I need a pair of tongs.
"Yo, Dan! Didn't make it to the P.O.?" he says like his words
are dropping sweat. "'ll be right with you. Soon's I'm done
here.…You still there, Mrs Sillicum?…No problem there at all, I can
do that for youse. Be there in two shakes." Dan's onto him! No time
for me to fetch anything. I start cramming everything back together.
The fan won't stay put. Come on, come on, you useless piece of
garbage. "But next time," Stanley goes on, "put the drain basket in
the basin before you bath one of them dolls--exuse me, I mean
them there babies. Otherwise, her other eyeball will go bye-bye
down the drain….Allrightee, I'm on my way."
Fruk.
With my fingers shaking, I screw on the cover plate. Then I
shut off all the lights and zip out onto the balcony. I climb onto the
other side of the balustrade and lower one leg over the edge, while
I hold on for dear life to the square wrought-iron balusters. The
corners of the rough iron cut into my hands. All this just to be
locked out on my own balcony below?! I'll have to get Stanley to
rescue me if I don't end up with my eyeballs rolling around on the
ground like one of Mrs Sillicum' mangy old dolls. Where the hell is
the Watcher when I really need him? I lower the other leg.
Suddenly, the lights come on in his apartment as I'm dangling in
midair. The lights! No point in pretending I wasn't here, Dan saw the
lights from the parking lot.
It's a long, hard journey back up. My arms must have
stretched at least a couple of feet. I swear my legs weren't this far
down when I first lowered them.
Back up on the balcony, I groan and get Stanley on my cell.
"Where are you?" he asks in a panic-stricken voice.
"On his balcony," I whisper, looking across the parking lot to
the low rise apartment building directly opposite the Doré. Better

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than even odds the Watcher is staked out inside one of the
apartments. Probably the one on the top floor, with the curtains
partially drawn and the lights out.
"Geez. Just you hold your horses there, I'm gonna crash
your pad and haul ya down outta there from your balcony. Or how
'bout I call the cops?"
"No, I'm going to confront him. You go into my apartment,
and the second you hear me say Fitz's name, tap the ceiling in the
kitchen three times, stop, then three more times. Got it?"
"Fitz, love tap, love tap, love tap, sigh, then three more love
taps."
"What would I do without Carbone Man?"
"Croak, probably."
"Just stay on the line, and for heaven's sake, don't make a
sound!"
"10-4."
I rub my sore hands together to get the circulation back into
them, then I push the curtains aside with my shoulder and come
face to face with the man with no name.
We spare each other the futility of pretending we're
surprised. He's wearing a suit and overcoat as any respectable
insurance broker returning home from the office would. He looks
darkly beautiful as he stands before me, calm, cool and way too
collected, one hand shoved in his coat pocket. I try to hold my face
in neutral, while he smiles at me like he's ready to close a deal to
his satisfaction.
I play with the fantasy of slamming his head against the patio
door and kicking his butt off the balcony. Instead, I say with the
volume capped, "Since you've been spending most of your time this
past week, parading around my apartment in my clothes, I thought
it was time I paid you a visit." I circle around him to get between him
and the safest exit.
"I'm glad you did--"
"No doubt."
"--because it gives me the perfect opportunity to explain." He
pulls his hand out of his pocket to join his other hand in imploring
me. "Rane, we've known each other for--"
"You haven't even finished one sentence, and you're already
lying." He stares at me like my words pulverized his brains. "The
only thing I know about you is that you're a skilled liar."
"I've had to lie to you to protect you fr--"
"That's what I need all right, another lying bastard in my life
to protect me." I move towards him, check myself then step back
and give him a look that matches the sour taste in my mouth.

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He holds up his palms. "Ask me anything, anything at all,


and I'll answer you. No lies. Don't look away, Rane. Please. No
more lies, I mean it."
I keep my cool, but my toes go crazy in my boots. "What
were you doing in my apartment yesterday?"
"I was trying to throw Nevar and his fellow miscreants off
your scent by pretending to be you, while I searched for the heroin
he stashed in your apartment Saturday night."
So much for his day out with Myrtle and her parents.
"What's wrong with your derailleur?"
"Nothing."
"You said it was ruined."
"Whatever you thought I said," he says, getting snippy, "I
meant that my bike is damaged beyond repair."
Oh.
"Who's the Watcher?"
"A cop trying to keep one step ahead of the rat squad, while
he plays dirty with Nevar and his ilk."
"And the Hiker?"
"He goes by the name of Joseph Stampe. Bit of a mystery
man this one. He seems to have come out of nowhere to
strong-arm for Nevar. Probably one of Nevar's customers who'd kill
for another fix but wanted to come clean."
"Have you been fouling up my answering machine?"
He shakes his head. "Nevar's handiwork. I haven't been
calling you because I know it's crawling with bugs."
I look down to keep him from seeing my surprise. His were
the missing messages. The ones of such great importance, I can't
remember a single thing he said. Hell, I never even noticed his calls
had stopped.
"Why would he bother to erase your messages?"
"To confine your thinking by isolating you, I should think."
"Who's Myrtle?"
"She's a liasion officer working with Interpol Region Three."
"Where's Chanlee?" I narrow my eyes at him.
"Wish I knew. Nevar nabbed her. I haven't seen her since
yesterday morning. If we're going to find her before he dispenses
with her, we'll have to work fast."
"She trusted you, Dan. I don't, so your desire isn't my
command. The love you steal is infinitely better than anything you
have to give."
"I'm trying to help."
"Yeah, well, as Chanlee learned, any kindness from you is a
form of hatred."
He shakes his head with a tsk, tsk. "You're one with your
gender in confusing thoughts with feelings."

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"What are you confusing with the small head rationalizations


of your feelings?"
He tries to hide his contempt with a smile that never
succeeds in being more than simpering. "Think what you will about
me, but he's not a bloke anyone should--"
"Where do you live?"
"France."
I shake my head. "Where do you live in town?"
"I'll take you there."
I continue shaking my head. "You've been taking me for a
ride long enough, Dan, er, who the hell are you?"
"Marc Bernardin, I'm on the job with Interpol." He reaches
inside his overcoat, and I fly behind the sofa out of the range of fire.
But he pulls out his wallet. The post office card is tucked inside it.
He slides the card back into his pocket then holds out the ID to me.
"Well, Marc," I say with a lying smile and step towards him.
"None of that explains my part in this drug sting, bust, operation or
whatever you choose to call it." His soft, mellow exterior turns to
stone as I approach him.
Looking past his opaque eyes, I raise my arms to hug him to
death. All of a sudden, a long groan escapes from the vicinity of my
heart. Stanley, shut up! The instant I hesitate, Dan grabs my wrist,
twists my arm back and locks me in a side choke. "Why do you
women always have to ruin everything by following your nature?"
he seethes in my ear and yanks back hard on my neck. "You
couldn't leave well enough alone, no, you had to let him listen in.
Now you're forcing me to--"
A loud clang echoes from the bathroom. The ceiling fan
cover's cutting loose! He jolts in the direction of the noise.
"Who the--" he starts to say.
"Nevar, who else were you--" He tightens his grip and drags
me towards the bathroom. "--expecting?" I gurgle.
"What kind of fool do you take me for?"
"The worst kind."
"Women can't stop asking to be beat--" He jolts again at a
loud crashing noise.
The fan. I knew it had to be good for something!
Taking advantage of his alarm, I push into him and throw his
weight backwards. As he struggles to regain his lock on me, I
quickly palm the postal card. Then I grab his coat and yank the
unbalanced lug forward. The blood rushes to his face, rage burning
in his eyes.

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CHAPTER 19

"Fitz!" I yell in the direction of the bathroom.


Tap, tap--Dan jumps like someone shot him between the
legs. The rage in his eyes ignites into terror. He bolts for the door
before Stanley finishes the last tap.
"Stanley! He's coming for you!"
"No shit."
"Use the stairs."
"Whaddaya think I'm doing? Why did ya have let him go for?
You lost your marbles?"
"Why would I want to keep someone else's sock puppet?
He's on his way to do a little war dance for his master."
He groans. "Youse take your war somewheres else. You
hearing me?"
I run into the kitchen for a pair of tongs, but settle for a fork
and use it to impale the book in the bathroom. The padded cover
has the smell, look and feel of uncaressed leather. Just like the one
Nevar stole back from me. It's an address book. My heart soars
from the throes of daunting cynicism. This book is the key to finding
Chanlee. Clutching it to my heart, I jump down and race to the door
then stop abruptly. Why am I running? This is the safest place in
the world for me right now. He won't be back. Even if he was telling
the truth about being an undercover cop, his cover is blown. Which
means that as a hostage Chanlee has become more of a liability
than an asset. One way or another, she's about to be released. And
so help me, I won't let it be through death.
Leaning over the balcony railing, I see Dan gunning for his
SUV.
"Relax, Stanley," I say into the phone. "The pig is in flight."
"Don't you never get me mixed-up in your weirdo criminal
activities no more."
"I'll be right down."
"You okay, then?"
"Whaddaya think? I've had the help of Carbone Man."
"Okay. But ya'd better have your keys to that awesome bike
ready, you hear what I'm saying? I'm taking 'er out as in NOW.
10-4?" He hangs up.
On the way down, I dial up 555-5370.
"Don't hang up, please," I implore.

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"That's the last thing I intend to do," Dan the insurance man
says. "You're going to tell me that some crook has stolen my
identity, correct?"
"Crook isn't the word I'd use, but yes, that's what I'm phoning
about."
"I was going to call you, because after you called I got to
thinking, you know, about something that happened to me about a
month ago. Only, it didn't register at the time, but I was shopping in
a men's clothing store, and when the kid at the till looked at my
bank card, he said, 'Our computer says your suit is ready, Mr
Istenly.' I had a dickens of a time trying to convince him I wasn't
having any suit altered. I'm the only Istenly in the phone book,
would you believe? But if you're a friend of the other Dan Istenly,
you must think I'm the fraud."
"Look, Dan, I'll help you if you'll meet me before 9:00 at the
post office in the Moose Trail Crossing mall." He doesn't say
anything, probably because he senses a trap, so I add, "I can't very
well do anything to you with everyone watching at the post office.
We'll both be safe there." I hope.

Stanley opens his office door before I have a chance to


knock. He grabs my wrist and yanks me inside.
"Hello, Stanley!" He's wearing a sailor jumper, bellbottom
pants and a white bucket hat on top of a straw wig.
"Don't you say a thing," he says, jabbing a finger in the air at
me. "I got hijacked by that crazy broad in 53." I hold my lips tight to
keep from laughing. "She caught me waiting outside her door, so I
had to make her and that freak farm of hers happy to keep her from
squawking."
Imitating a doll with round blinking eyes, I say, "I'm taking the
Duke, squawk, squawk, but I'll be right back." I do a doll walk out of
his office.
"Huh?!"
I blow him a big doll kiss.
He kicks the air in my direction. "I gotta be crazier than
youse all. Geez, I don't believe it. I let myself be pimped over by
another broad."
"If I'm not back with the Duke in the next couple of hours,
you can tear all my stuff apart and chuck it out on the street."
"You come back here, you!"

The postal worker locks the door after me. I sigh with
irritation rather than relief because Dan the insurance man isn't
here. I walk past rows of bagged clothes hanging from dry-cleaning
racks, to dumps of plastic-bagged greeting cards and finally to the
post office crammed in a corner at the back.

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"You wouldn't believe how many people become blind when


they see the word CLOSED," the worker says as she settles back
into the chair behind the counter.
Turning around, I see a man trying to get service through a
locked door. With his freezing blue eyes, bunny teeth and shady
banker's smile, he's the replica of the man featured on Dan the
insurance man's web site.
"He's with me," I say.
"He can wait until you're done," the worker says, patting
down her thinning, needle straight dyed hair. Given how little there
is of it, she's probably counting to see how many strands she has
left. I don't know, but it looks like she saves the perming for the hair
on her chin and arms.
"No he can't. He's my husband, and I've got his parcel
pickup card."
She shrugs with her shoulders and lush eyebrows then
shuffles over to the door.
"Hi, honey," I say to Dan. "Here's your card."
Giving me a confused look riddled with suspicion, he takes it.
"See the name?" He smacks the card. "Dan S. Istenly. And our
addresses don't match." He hands it back to me. I push it away.
"Believe me, she won't look that closely," I say, taking his
arm and pulling him towards the counter.
"May I help you?" the worker says in a commanding voice.
Her inch-long plastic nails march like impatient soldiers on the
counter.
After too much wavering, he hands her the card and gets out
his ID. As he holds it out to her, I hug his neck and place a wet
smooch as close to his lips as he'll permit. "Oh, I can't wait until
we're alone," I coo in his ear loud enough for her to hear. He gives
me a quick nervous look, and she shrugs with her brows then
retrieves a cardboard box from the cubbyhole behind her.
Outside, he refuses to hand over the box to me.
"I could go to jail for interfering with someone else's mail," he
says.
"Someone else's? How many Dan Istenly's do you think
there are in this city? One too many, if I'm not mistaken."
He dismisses the insinuation with a drawn-out sigh.
"What's in here that's making you so anxious to break the
law?"
"I don't know. Let's open it and find out."
He shakes his head and pulls the box closer to him.
Although I'm trying to look and sound patient, if he weren't
concerned exclusively with himself, he'd see that I'm not interested
in negotiating with him. About anything.

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I hold up my hands in surrender. "You're right. This is a


police matter." I pull out my cell and offer it to him. "Call the police
and ask for Levi Bangston."
He hesitates, thinks better of it and makes the call. Holding a
hand over the phone, he says, "The dispatcher would like to know if
I want to leave a message."
"Well, do you?"
He shuts down the phone and hands it back to me. He's as
much of a poser as his counterpart.
I bring up Levi's name and number from the call list and
show him. "Constable Bangston'll get you onto the right people to
help sort out your identity problem."
"Chanlee hasn't shown up?" Levi asks, concern in his voice.
"No, but I know who snatched her," I say, coming out of the
chute bucking.
"Snatched her?!"
"Before you say or do anything, listen to me. I need a couple
of hours. That's all--"
"You have no right to play cop with her life. Odds are that a
year of her life will go kaput with every minute you waste."
"You're wasting her time by lecturing me, Levi."
Dan shoves the box at me. "I don't want any part of this," he
says, backing away. "I'll call him tomorrow." He disappears into the
night, while I smile perversely at the sight of my name and address
on the upper left corner of the box.
"Levi, listen, she left me a message saying that she hid a
painting in her locker. You're not officially on the job until midnight.
Give me till then before you bring in the troops. But two people
have already died over that painting so don't even think about
pulling a cowboy."
"I'm the cowboy?!" he snorts.
"Are you with me or not?"
"I'm with Chanlee."
"All right then. Help her by helping me, Levi. It's me they're
really after. They're using her to force me to come across with the
painting."
"Who are they?"
"I'm not sure. All I have--"
"That isn't what you said a minute ago."
"I know who one of them is, but he's only the frosting on the
iceberg. I have to dig a lot deeper, and I can with the painting as
leverage."
"Okay, I'll do it for Chanlee."
"Great, as long as you don't bring anyone else in on it."
A thousand yeses and nos could fit into the time I give him to
agree.

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"You saying one of us is involved?" he asks incredulously.


"I'll give you the name of one of them if you get me the
painting."
"How tight is your evidence?"
I pat my pocket, partly to reassure myself the book’s still
there. If I tell him that her disappearance is tied in with Kenny
Hironaka's, there's no way he will even consider keeping quiet
about any of this for longer than a nanosecond. So I resist the
temptation to tell him what I know. "Good, but it's nothing without
the painting.”
"Must be sommme painting. I like art as much as the next
guy, but I just don't get why anyone would kill over greasy pigment
on rotting canvas. Whose masterpiece is it, anyhow?"
"Never mind that, just get it for me."
"Okay, okay! But I'm warning you, I'm on the job at midnight.
Officially."
"If there's a red hat with the painting, grab it too. And there
should be a sketchbook."
"Anything else?" he says sarcastically.
"Yes, do you know who Marc Bernardin is?"
"Haven't a clue."
"How about a tall blond woman about my age, liaising with
Region Three?"
"Ditto."
"Could you stop--"
"Holy cow, don't have a connipshit! Save your shots for the
bad guys."

Sitting on the Duke under a lamp in the parking lot, I open


the box and rout around in the packing. Fruk, there's nothing in
here but peanut Styrofoam. I dump the annoying plastic on the
asphalt, and a cello-wrapped memory card glistens on the top of
the heap.
By now, Fitz must know what's on the other one. I try getting
him on the phone, but call forwarding kicks in. He's probably at
Dad's finding out what evil is being sheltered on these damned
things. I cringe at the very thought of it, but I need Nevar's help.
Everything he yelled at me in the basement I’ve tried to mute into
forgetfulness with genuine disbelief, but his words keep stampeding
through my thoughts. Especially the ones about me being the key
to Kenny's disappearance and knowing where Chanlee is. You
know where, you know where, you know….
But I don't.
In this partially clear night with storm clouds obliterating the
horizon, I can't make sense of anything that really matters. Not
Nevar, not the stars or the wind blowing my thoughts around the

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globe and back to me again. And especially not myself. I can't think
straight with him in my head. His voice is all the more maddening
and torturous because through the thundering I hear a sonorous
love call. Absurd. When I looked closely at him out cold on the
landing, I wanted to pummel him, ring his neck and, heaven help
me, hug him like some freaking necrophiliac. It drives me crazy how
he effortlessly surfs the primal waves he stirs up in me. Dan didn't
hesitate to finger him as the perpetrator of everyone's woes. As if
I'm going to believe any guy who breaks into my apartment to
parade around in my dirty pjs. He answered all my questions like
Hamlet is his favorite role. Was it only hours ago that I regarded
him as the most thoughtful person I know? He’s full of thought, all
right. For himself. Even when other people talk, all he hears is the
sound of his own voice. Whereas Nevar kept taking one shot after
another at me, riddling my heart with so many holes, I still feel more
dead than alive. He presumes he has a lover's prerogative to tell
me that my feelings aren't good enough for him.
No matter which way I dice or slice all this, one and one still
adds up to me crawling back to him, because to find Chanlee I
need his half of the damned puzzle.

No lights intrude upon the darkness at Nevar's place. As I


approach the back door, my throat tightens mercilessly, making my
breathing labored. The Hiker could have finished him off, in which
case, I'm an accessory to murder. But if he got to the Hiker first, it
means I'm left with kowtowing to him. He's going to relish that too
much for my stomach. Never mind that, he's going to arrest me. If
he's here. Maybe he killed the Hiker, and he's disposing of the body
the way he did with the other one. Or he's at the hospital.
Halfway through the kitchen and my nagging doubts, I stop
at the sound of voices coming from the basement. One is Nevar's,
but I can't make out the other voices. I tiptoe to the basement door
and slowly turn the knob. Holding the door ajar, I peer down, seeing
nothing but blood splattered on the landing. They must be in the
poolroom, but I can hear them well enough to know that one of the
other voices belongs to Maldoon.
"She's gotta go down. We can't let her run around
halfcocked," Maldoon says.
"Granted, she's down to the wire, but I don't see her tripping
up," Nevar says.
"No? You've set her up to take a fall," Maldoon says.
"Come on, you guys, she's already done that," the third man
says. He's a fast talker without the patience to allow doubt to infect
his voice. A real smoothie. "What do you expect? She went into this
blindly, and she still doesn't have a friggin' clue what she's gotten
herself into."

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"You've picked the wrong time to lose your perspective,


Stefan," Maldoon chips in.
"She cold-cocked you, man," Mr Smoothie says. "She's more
than a risk, she's--"
Maldoon breaks in, "Wait'll she gets onto how you've been
using her to get the drugs and take out Samente. Given half a
chance, she'll kill you."
"She's had more than half a chance," Nevar says, not
sounding convinced about what anyone is saying, including himself.
"How do you know she hasn't already tripped the light
fantastic?" Mr Smoothie says. "I tell you, man, she's snowdrifting
her way to killing you. Oh, don't give me that look. Forget about her.
You should be protecting yourself."
"I think she…." Nevar's words fade away.
I open the door wider and crane to hear better. The scent of
him causes me to jerk my head back. He knows I'm here, and he's
coming for me. What the hell, isn't this why I came here? Suddenly,
the lights come on all around me. Oh fruk, he has the remote! I
slide into a chair at the table and sharpen my wits to negotiate my
way through hell. Then out of the corner of my eye I catch sight of
something blue on the countertop.
A blue cap.
A blue cap just like the one Kenny was wearing.
Suddenly I see red, and the face of Mr Smoothie. He's the
Hiker.
Hell of hells, Dan's been telling the truth!
I can't take the three of them on. Not without Fitz. And Levi.
Not Dan, though. He isn't the man I thought he was. But Nevar,
well, he's always been the man I don't want to believe he is.
I grab the cap and dash outside. Gulping for air, I zip around
the corner of the house and stare down the driveway. All I see
between me and the street is death, with more of it charging up
behind me. My name blows by me in the wind as Nevar hollers it. I
push and scrape through the side hedge and leap, fall and
scramble across one yard after another to an alley. I can't see or
hear Nevar or his goons behind me, which makes me run harder
because I know they're heading straight for the bottom of the hill
where they think my bike is parked. It's only a scream away in the
porte-cochère of a kindly neighbor called Orvin, who was easily
seduced by the Duke and could just as easily be seduced by a
false gesture from Nevar.
One house down from the Duke, I start cursing faster than
my wildly pounding heart and legs can carry me, because I see the
bike lit up like a can't miss spectacle in a showroom. No time to
grab the Duke. Sweet as he is, the Duke'll betray me sure as
shootin' if I roar out of here.

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A security light flashes on me as I ring the doorbell.


Orvin, anybody, please be home!

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CHAPTER 20

As I'm about to bolt around to the back, through the frosted


sidelight at the entrance I catch a glimpse of someone approaching.
I fling open the screendoor.
"Shut off the outside lights!" I pant.
Orvin stares at me in horror.
"Some thugs are chasing me. The lights!" I bend over, trying
to ease my burning lungs.
The Duke is suddenly consumed by welcoming darkness.
Orvin slips an arm around my back and urges me into the
house.
"You catch yer breath there now, young lady," he says
kindly. Letting go of me, he runs arthritic fingers through his mane
of white hair and watches me like he's having some luck accessing
the risk to me and himself. In his golf shirt and self-ironing pants, he
looks like the closest he's come to a bad time in a while is blowing a
sure thing on the putting green. "And don't you worry none, I won't
let 'em getcha." His heavy black eyebrows seem to be permanent
fixtures halfway up his prominent forehead, but he smiles at me
with beautifully defined lips that must make beggars of all they
touch.
"Thanks, Orvin." I turn around and take hold of the doorknob.
"Where ya going?" He hooks an arm around mine and pulls
me away from the door. "Give 'em time to think they scared ya off
somewheres else." He reaches across me and turns off the foyer
light. "There. Now you go on into the kitchen and help yerself to
whatever ya'd like to drink. I'll move yer Ducati to the garage at the
back."
"Uh, I don't think you can do that by yourself."
"Even if I can't, I'm gonna. No lights, neither. Bikin's in my
blood. Got stung with the bug in The War." He scratches his freshly
sprouted whiskers. "Don't need diddlysquat but what's left of this
here body a mine to move that there Ducati. Yup." he says with a
faraway look and takes my smile for a yes.
As soon as he's gone, I try getting hold of Fitz. No deal, so I
try calling Dad.
"How's Mr McPickles?" I say, wishing I didn't need to ask. I
dread the thought of the kitten being dead. I'm already weighed
down into numbness by a malevolence I have yet to fathom.

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"Scraping by on a song and a prayer one moment at a time


in the land of the living like the rest of us. But, Rane, by the sound
of you, I'd say he's doing better than you."
"Things have gone way beyond SNAFU to FUBB. But it
would help if I knew what you and Fitz found on that memory card
those vermin sewed up inside McPickles."
"Nothing--"
"Rotten hell! I was expecting anything but nothing."
"Nothing that drastic. We don't know what's on it because I
haven't been able to get through to Fitz. I drove around to his house
with it, but he wasn't there, either."
"They've got him, the maggots got him." My heart feels so
heavy I can feel myself sinking through one plane of consciousness
to another, down, down into the abyss.
"I can buy a reader first thing tomorrow," he offers. "Time I
upgraded my camera anyway."
"Too late."
"Are you at your apartment? I'll bring the card to you."
"Sorry to say, I might have to take you up on that. But for
now, you know where to keep it safe." Understanding flows
unimpeded between us in a brief silence, our minds meeting inside
McPickles' box. "If anyone, I don't care who it is, asks where the
card is, tell them you gave it to me."
"Anyone except Fitz."
"Including Fitz. He wouldn't think twice about giving it to
them to save us."
"Watch yourself."
"You too."
I hang up and blow on my hands. It feels like my heart has
turned into an ice machine. Then I pull out the leather book from my
pocket and look through it. I know you're in here, Chanlee. And you
too, Fitz, you're buried somewhere in here. I'll find you, I promise.
The names and addresses have all been done by one hand and
with the same ink. And there's a sameness to the way the
addresses are organized, like they were all copied from another
source in one sitting. For one thing, the book looks unused. For
another thing, there aren't many addresses with postal codes. I leaf
through front to back, then back to front. Correction, there are no
postal codes at all. The names and addresses all look like…like
they came straight out of the phone book. I glance up and see the
kitchen. My thoughts were crowding out the universe, obviously,
because now I see the handmade tiles on the floor and
backsplashes, and the intricate mosaic on the table top my elbows
are resting on. Hand-blown glassware glisten through the
beveled-glass doors of the cabinetry. Orvin's an artisan? A
fastidious artisan who keeps his phone books out of sight of his art.

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I get up and slide out one drawer after another. Come across a
container filled with elastic bands and use one to hold back my hair
in a ponytail. Then I resume my search.
"Finding what ya need?" Orvin says at the doorway.
I'm too weary and strung out to feel embarrassed at being
caught snooping. I feel defeated more than anything. "I was looking
for your phone book," I say, reaching over and grabbing the leather
book off the table.
"No need ta go on a-worrying, young lady." He places a
comforting arm on my shoulders as I slump down into a chair. "It's
quiet as can be out there now, and I got yer Ducati where no one
'cept me can git it without waking up the whole dern neighborhood."
He chuckles.
"They're not after the Duke."
"The Sam Hill ya say!" He sits down in the chair kitty-corner
to me. "Ya haven't got no gang a marauding rapists after ya, now
have ya?"
"No, they're after this." I lock the book between my hands
and gnaw on my knuckles. "Amongst other things."
"Throw it in the way'a the police and make the buggers
chase the cops for it."
I shake my head. "The maggots have two of my friends, and
this book can tell me where to find them. If I can figure out how to
read it in time."
"Would a fresh eye be a any use, ya reckon?"
I open the book and place it on the table, but keep hold of it.
He reaches behind him and gets out a pair of eyeglasses from a
drawer. "Let's have a look here."
"I think everything's been copied out of the phone book."
"Ahh. I was wondering 'cause ya don't need no phone book
to git the police. It's in that there bread box behind ya."
After we check a few names and addresses against the
phone book, we both see the writing on the wall. The address
book's a poser, just like its author. I let Dan get away so I could get
my hands on this?! I pick it up and slam it back down. This cursed
little thing is crushing my hopes, my whole fruking life.
I shield my face from his watchful eyes filled with sympathy
that plays havoc with my resolve. Nevar's right, damn him. I did put
my friend--and now Fitz, too--in harm's way. And for what? To
prove to myself that I never really flunked out of police training, I
just didn't take it seriously enough to give it my best shot. And this
is what my best shot amounts to, my friends die as a result of my
lousy attempts at investigating? Me and my ego. Talk about the
blind leading the blind. It takes a real dimwit to get lost in hell when
all the roads lead to the same place: nowhere.
"What can I git fer ya ta drink?" he says, standing up.

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"No tea with the sympathy, thank-you." I try to smile, but the
corners of my mouth slump down with the rest of me.
He sits back down and resumes pouring sympathy all over
me.
"I've been wrangling with all this for a week now, and I've
come up with zip," I say feeling wretchedly exhausted.
I stand up abruptly.
"Thanks for your help," I say and make a quick exit out onto
the back deck.
I see the garage silhouetted against the alley lights and step
down off the deck into a garden. Ouch! My knee rams into a stone
bench. No, it's a border that curves around to who knows where. I
plunk myself down on it and wait for Orvin to come out and open
the garage. It shouldn't take him long to figure out I'm not coming
back in. Suddenly indigo lamps glow on the ground around me, and
I see that I'm sitting on the toe of a horseshoe.
"Look up," Orvin says from up on the deck. "Don't look down.
We all end up down there soon enough. Nobody never looked
down from above and said this here was the best place ta be. Look
up."
I don't bother. "If this is all there is, what's the point of
anything?"
"The point a everything is that this here is all there is."
"Wonderful." My head sinks into my hands.
He sits down beside me, places the address book on the
rock between us and looks up. "It's pretty dern lonely up there. Still,
looking up's how I got through the long days on them there rigs.
Yup. Ever since the universe took Vicky, I learnt ta stay busy ta
keep from being done in by the sadness. Ya know what else I
learnt? That the universe can git along fine, just fine, without ya, but
ya can't git along no how without it."
"Has the horseshoe brought you any luck?"
"You betcha. I woke up today." He chuckles. "You know,
young lady--"
"Rane," I snap. "My name is Rane."
He rubs his whiskers. "The other time ya parked yer bike
here, didn't ya tell me yer name was Lydia?"
"That was then. My name is Rane."
"Whatever ya want to call yerself is fine with me, young
lady."
If he doesn't quit nattering, I'm going to….What am I going to
do? I'm tangled up, bound and gagged by the threads I thought
were leading me out of Nevar's trap.
"From where I'm sitting I'd say yer only stuck because ya
think ya are. I don't know, but when life kicks ya in the pants it
seems once isn't enough. Ya have to git kicked again and again." I

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stare at him with growing impatience. "Once to git your attention,


twice to git ya going in the right direction and then forever, it seems,
to keep ya on course."
"Mind if I ask what your point is?"
"I'm telling ya yer wrong givin' up, 'cause there's no surer
way a staying stuck than giving up. Ya gotta stay true ta yer goals
'cause no one else's gonna. No how."
"I haven't given up, Orvin, I've struck out."
"Sure ya ain't just been hitting foul balls?"
"I've hit every ball they've pitched at me. Every damned one
of them, right into the outfield like they wanted me to."
"Whaddaya think it'd take ta git ya unstuck?" While I'm
thinking about it, he adds, "Knowledge, ya reckon? The right kinda
knowledge." He chuckles and I groan. "Don't ya go a-sniggerin'
now. The truth's in the things we know. Even if it weren't, ya can't
learn nothin' by closing yerself off from what's really there."
"You think I haven't been looking? All I've gotten for my
efforts is this address book I plucked out of the dung heap they're
building for me and my friends. Everything I've learned, everything
I've done and seen tells me that all the people left standing in this
mess are behind the disappearance of my friends. I know, hell do I
know, that can't be true. But with this book I was down to my last
hope."
"Ya sure it's as important as all that?"
"Yes, because I was set up to find the damned thing."
"Ta keep ya from looking fer yer friends?" Watching my feet
tap, I nod. "I got a feeling that this here book tells a story in the
exact same way this here house and garden tell the story a me 'n
Vicky. She's been gone pretty near five years now, but every single
one a these here rocks holds a memory of our life together. Same
goes fer the tiles and other things ya saw in the house. She put a
little of our lives into each of her creations." He rubs a hand along
the cover of the book. "Why such a fancy dern cover for an empty
book some bastrich put in yer hands? Tryin' ta git ya ta look in the
wrong direction, ya reckon?"
I look up. "You know, Orvin, I think you may just be…." I
grab the book and try to rip the cover apart. "I need a knife."
In the kitchen, I slit open the front cover. Nothing. Then I
slash the back, and a cello-wrapped memory card falls out onto the
table.
"Oh hell, not another one," I groan and pull out the card from
the parcel at the post office. They're a match.
"I getcha. Nothing's on 'em."
"No pretty pictures, that's for sure. I'm supposed to collect
these damned cards, not enjoy them. The maggots have been

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throwing them my way like dog biscuits." Mr McPickles


notwithstanding.
"No harm 'n seeing what's on this one, ya suppose? I got a
computer in my office, nothing fancy, mind. My bridge partners are
inside the dern thing. Anyways, June, my neighbor 'cross the street,
has all kinds a doodads fer this here kind of thing. She's always a
tinkering around with pictures of herself and givin' 'em to me. She
don't look half-bad in some a 'em, I suppose. My eyes, they're not
so good as they once was. No matter, I can see with my own two
eyes that she isn't no Victoria. I hate ta ask June for anything,
'cause every time I cross that dern street she thinks I'm coming
over ta propose ta her."
"I'll ask her for the reader." I'll do more than ask her, I'll steal
it if I have to. This little piece of plastic in my hand could contain
shots of a man being pushed off a mountain. Or worse. "Which
house?"
He shakes his head and points to the front of the house.
"She'll git those yappy dogs after ya. They don't bite, but she does."
"If you mean the house directly across the street, it's all
shuttered up."
"She had them roller blinds installed on the outside a her
windows so as to keep the sun offa her furniture. Only time she
ever opens the dern things is at night. Sometimes. Sure as yer
standing here, she's sitting there like a dern fool in front a her
computer, with one eye glued ta the TV so as not to miss nothing."

Later in his office, with his computer all decked out with the
right peripherals on a desk loaded down with antique marbles,
glass paperweights and oil rig mementos, we stare blankly at the
screen as we move from file to file filled with row upon row of
numbers, characters and symbols. On both cards.
Orvin shakes his head. "More mumbo jumbo ta throw ya off
track. Or is it modern art, ya reckon?"
"Neither. I think it's an encrypted user list. The maggots
who've been feeding me this stuff are worshipers of a powerful
deity."
"Some sort a newfangled cult?"
"Not new, no. They've sold themselves to the most lucrative
of devils, a drug lord." I stand up. Ten to one there's another
memory card inside the computer chip the Hiker planted on my car.
"I need to get into the garage because I have another card in my
bag. If I'm right, it's going to contain more of the same shit--if you'll
excuse the language."
"Well, ya know," he says, scratching his cheek, "shit about
covers it."

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With a knife, I pry open the computer chip and voilà, inside is
another memory card. I put it into the reader and what pops up on
the computer screen?
"More gargbledeegoop," Orvin sighs.
"More reasons to kill."
He squints and puts his face up close enough to the screen
to kiss it.
I reach around his head and tap on the upper left-hand
corner of the screen. "See these numbers, 1874, here at the
beginning? The card from the post office doesn't have a number up
here, but the first file on the card from the address book started with
6144. I have another one of these things, and I'll bet you anything
that it starts with four thousand. Give or take a hundred."
"Maybe," he says, pulling his head back, "maybe not. Could
just be more a nothing."
"No," I insist, "because these numbers make sense. There
are 6144 victims buried on the three cards. And I think the maggot
who 'owns' these users is selling them off. He's been using me to
transfer them to the new owner. I've been their willing puppet." My
face burns with anger and humiliation. "Look at me closer, and
you'll see the strings. They might as well be buying, selling and
trading fruking baseball cards for all it matters to them." He looks at
me doubtfully. "There's only one way to find out. I'm going to have
to see what's hidden on that other card."
"Well, let's give 'er a look."
"I don't have it on me." I give him the sorriest look I can
muster. "I'm going to need your help to get it, I'm afraid." His gaze
doesn't shirk from mine. "Would you be willing to get this reader to
my parents' place on Brittanski Drive?"
"Don't see why not, I reckon."
"Wearing my jacket and helmet?"
"Hell ya say! Never thought I'd ever git any dern closer to a
Ducati than some highfalutin bike show." He jumps up and says
thank-you, looking up. Way up.
"Orvin, you'll have to change into jeans if you're going to
convince anyone that you're me. Oh, and I don't want you to bring
the card back. Tell my father to keep it. But you phone me as soon
as you find out whether I'm right about the first file starting with four
thousand."
"Looks like I'm gonna have ta borrow June's mobile phone.
Dern it, I never been partial ta that month."
"No time. My father'll give you one. Don't worry about what to
say to him, I'll warn him you're coming. But when you call, don't say
anything about the card, just say yes or no. Then I want you to
drive to Kirkewood Place, park the Duke in front of 2597 and ring
the buzzer. I'll be inside waiting for you."

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Wherever I go, Nevar and his goons are always at least


three steps ahead. Always some damned carrot for me to nibble
on. I've watched a man falling to his death for them, landed face
down in the blood of a murdered man for them, watched my father's
car being blown up for them and led my friends into deathtraps for
them. But somewhere along the way, I messed up and got
something right for myself instead of them. Something that doesn't
fit into Nevar's plans. Al's is the only place left where I'll be safe
enough to think this mess through and plot it out on the computer.
The key's in the computer. That's why Nevar was trying to
pry info from me about my computer. "Shhiiittttt!"
"Wanna tell me who ya've declared war on?" He waves the
thought away. "Nah, better not. Ya know, in case I get captured and
tortured by the enemy."
"You're safe as long as I hold the cards. Don't forget to take
the reader. Think your neighbor will mind?"
"She's gonna wanna dunk ya in hot oil till you're a
crispy-critter then feed ya to her mutts."

After he's decked out in my riding gear, and he's blasted off
on the Duke, I turn out all the lights except the ones in his office.
Then I try sliding into his broken-in jean jacket and get stuck. The
best laid plans…. Scrambling to find a jacket big enough to fit, I end
up getting stuck with a yellow oilcloth raincoat. Ah well, I pull the
hood up over Kenny's cap and head for the garage. Nothing
disturbs me but the mountain-tossed wind. From what I can tell in
the dark, Orvin left a pickup for me. But the keys don't fit. I fumble
my way around to the other side of the truck and grope the cold
metal of a sedan that looks more like a submarine in the deep
shadows. I try opening it. The key glides in but won't turn. The
second key does the trick. I open the door and wish I hadn't. For
letting him ride the Duke, Orvin's rewarding me by letting me drive
his '50s Studebaker. An opportunity of a lifetime, for sure, but how
the hell am I supposed to go unnoticed in this thing? I'll be lucky if I
don't get pulled over just so some cop can ogle it.
While I'm warming up the old buggy, I try the controls. They
all work, even the radio.
"…The top stories on the tens," the announcer says in a
smoker's voice. "Shock and tears have greeted the news that the
body of nine-year-old Kenny Hironaka has been found by two
hikers in a heavily- wooded area north of Banff. Police say he died
as a result of a fall from a precipice. His family--"
My cell jolts me back to life.
"Yes and no," Orvin says and hangs up.
Orvin!

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I fold my arms around the steering wheel and bang my


forehead against my arms. Kenny was just a kid. He's never going
to grow into his own voice or choose his own song. All the
friendship, laughs, triumphs and discoveries that should have been
his have died with him. Gone with a fall from a precipice. I should
have seen this coming because I've been up on the precipice with
him all along. I can feel them pushing me, baiting me, stabbing at
me.
I lift my head and see a face staring at me in the window
straight ahead lit by the headlights. At least I think I did. Even with
straining, all I can see are frostbitten plants in a window box.
Keeping a wary eye on the window, I call Orvin.
"Hello?" Orvin says like he doesn't know it's me.
"What did you mean by--" Holy hell, the door's opening! I kill
the lights, throw down the phone, slam the gear into reverse and
careen out into the alley. The phone flies off the seat onto the floor.
No one comes after me. The sneaky bastards must be
waiting for me on the street. But this old buggy is the closest thing I
see to a car on the street for several blocks, so I pull into
someone's driveway and reach under the passenger seat for the
phone.
Grabbing the cell, I shout, "Orvin?"
"They after ya again?" he asks.
"Yeah, but they're keeping their distance because they want
the cards to get to their destination safely."
"Shiver my dern timbers!" he says. "Ya should a heard what
it sounded like from over here."
"Never mind that, what did you mean by yes AND no?"
"This one started with 8029."
Which means there are 10 thousand users all together. Shit,
shoot, shite. I'm missing one of the cards.
"Ask your fellow compatriot what he meant when he said to
our uninvited dinner guest the other day that the kidnapping must
be particularly difficult for him." I roll down the window because I'm
fogging myself in. The smell of freeze-dried leaves seeps into the
car.
After a pause too short for me to go through my whole litany
of expletives, my father's voice says, "He was Kenny's uncle."
"He's what?!" All the muscles in my face contort into a
painful knot.
"Was, Rane, was. Haven't you heard? He's--"
"I know. I heard it on the radio."
"You having Stefan over and all, what reason did I have for
believing you didn't know his connection with the boy?"
I finish my litany of expletives then say, "How long have you
been in contact with Nevar?"

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"I haven't seen or spoken to him since--"


"Why are you lying? Has he--"
"Rane! I sympathize with his plight, but if I have prided
myself on anything as a parent, it's that I have been on guard
against any feelings that may be injurious to my children."
The anger and hurt in his voice shames me, but it only adds
fuel to the conflagration of suspicions rearing up in my mind. "Then
how did you know about his connection with Kenny? It hasn't been
in the media."
"Patricia at work plays hockey with Kenny's mother. Stefan is
her brother."
"I should have guessed. He never concerns himself with
anything that isn't directly related to himself. Sorry for snipping,
Dad--"
"Save your sorrow for his family."
"--but I'm turning a corner real fast on one leg. Tell your
comrade there--please--to complete his mission."
"This isn't a public thoroughfare," a man with no head says
from the other side of the passenger window.
"I'll keep you posted, Dad," I say, rolling the buggy out of the
driveway.
"Hey! Is this a Studebaker?" the driveway hog yells like I'm
his best friend all of a sudden.
Driving like an octogenarian out for a drive on a speedway, I
head for Al's.
Ol' Uncle Nevar was telling the truth when he said Kenny
was his problem. I shake my head in disbelief. The way this is all
shaking out, Dan snatched Kenny to ensure that Nevar didn't
double cross him; and Nevar, along with a couple of crooked cops,
snatched Chanlee. Nevar hasn't come across with the goods, so
Dan sent him a message at the bottom of a precipice. Then Dan
grabbed Fitz to ensure I deliver all 10 thousand users to Dan.
Unless they want a bloodbath that will attract the attention of the
whole world, both maggots will release their hostages as soon as
Dan has the complete list and Nevar's got his money. One small
glitch, though: I'm missing around two thousand users.
I must have the collected the card, somehow, somewhere, or
they wouldn't have bothered to snatch Fitz as a warning for me to
quit stalling and deliver. I'm not the only one who can hear the
hooves of the cavalry closing in. But how could I have missed one
of the cards when Nevar has been so meticulous in orchestrating
my movements? Unless he planted it on me before I became
suspicious of him. Hell, I've been suspicious of him since he
approached me up at the mountains.
The mountains!

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Did he stage the confrontation with me on the mountain to


plant one of the cards in my carryall? No wonder he couldn't stop
grinning like a porch monkey. "Shoot to hell!" I exclaim out loud. His
thugs took the whole bag apart, thread by thread, paint drop by
freaking paint drop.
Yes but….
My bike bag was in the carryall at the mountains. But didn't I
rig it up to my mountain bike the next day? Yes, and they're both at
Mabie-Toogod's.
I slam my foot on the break. Whew! No one's behind me.

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CHAPTER 21

"Fruking frukarama! It's not in here," I say, dumping the contents of


my bike bag on the cement floor of Mabie-Toogod's garage.
"In order for it to be here, one of the items would of necessity
have to be the requisite dimensions to hold a memory stick,"
Mabie-Toogod says, squinting to see without her eyeglasses. Her
eyes are bloodshot, but she said she wasn't sleeping when I called.
I believe her. Unless, of course, she goes to bed wearing a ribbed
chenille robe over a black wet suit, with rubber gloves and a pen
hanging from a rhinestone chain around her neck. What's more,
either she's concocted a merciless way of torturing her hair, or
she's dyeing it. Strands slimed over with purple guck poke out of a
plastic bag wrapped around her head. With her, the weird is
normal. What's really weird, though, is that her face is all dolled up.
I've yet to see her without pancake makeup, or see her touch her
face, come to think of it.
Kneeling on the cement, I go through everything again and
again. The memory card isn't hidden in my comb. Or the tissue
pack, notepad, lip moisturizer, sunblock lotion, toothpaste, brush
and floss, nailclipper, bandages, scissors, mirror, measuring tape
and tool kit. My pen! It's missing. So what? The card couldn't fit in it
anyway. A drop of the purple slime plops on my pocket mirror.
I gasp. Mabie-Toogod's glazed-over eyes widen.
"Sorry, I just caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror," I say,
wiping off the slime. I flip the mirror upside-down then snatch it
back up, run a fingernail along the seam attaching the silver tone
backing to the front and gasp again as the back pops off. I stare at
the card in my hand long enough to feel a sense of relief. Then I
pounce on myself for being too vain to remember to carry a mirror
around with me.
"I have to see what's on this."
"Ostensibly you can navigate your own way to the study. My
hair is in need of a thorough rinsing."
After putting the satchel back on the bike leaning against the
built-in cupboards on the entrance side of the garage, I rotate the
tires. The pedal catches on a door handle, pulling the door open.
An empty box labeled Paper Recycling is inside. As I bend down to
unhook the bike, the memory card slides out of my pocket and
wedges itself between the box and side of the cupboard. I can't
reach the stupid doomajig with my fingers, so I push the box back a

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bit. The shelf moves with it, creating an opening just wide enough
for the card to drop down between the side and plywood bottom of
the cupboard. I haul out the box and try getting a grip on the
plywood. No deal. I lean back into the cupboard to see how secure
the top shelf is. My fingers light upon a piece of wood that moves at
my touch, and suddenly, the bottom shelf springs up against my
back. I touch the wood again, and the shelf goes into abeyance. I
scramble out and open the trap door again.
I thought so. A safe.
I grab the card and close up everything quickly before she
catches me violating her privacy. And whose privacy will I be
violating by peering into this card?

"3971!" I say to my ghost in the computer screen in the


study. "Beautiful." It looks like each card, except the first, starts with
the last user on the previous card. But do they add up to 8029?
I take the pencil from an antique mug and grab a sheet of
paper from a stack on her cluttered but orderly desk and write
write:
8029 - 6144 = 1885
6144 - 3791 = 2353
3791 - 1874 = 1917
1874 - 0000 = 1847
Damn, they don't add up. I circle 3791 and transpose the
seven and nine. Aha! That's better. And I start again:

8029 - 6144 = 1885


6144 - 3971 = 2173
3971 - 1874 = 2097
1874 - 0000 = 1874
--------------------------
8029

Mabie-Toogod walks into the study as I'm kissing the paper.


"Rane!" She marches over to me and snatches the paper from my
hands. "Refrain from purloining my papers!" She places it back
carefully on top of the stack and resumes drying her hair with a
black towel. "You are making refuse of two years of arduous
scholarship." She opens a drawer in the massive antique desk and
hands me a writing pad.
"No harm meant, Aurora," I say and take the card out of the
reader. "But you see, with this last card I can annihilate all the lies
standing between me and what I love." As I get up to leave, I point
to the desktop on the screen. "Your computer is almost empty."

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"Correct. Due to the fact that I caught a worm, I'm riddled


with the onerous task of reinstalling." She twists the towel into a
turban.
"Rotten. If you need any help, let me know. Well, I'm going to
Al's. Any messages for him?"
"Rane, it's after midnight. Let the poor man rest in peace."
"I can't go back to my apartment or--Damn! The Duke's got
my laptop."
"Refrain from overreacting. Your security is not in jeopardy
here."
"Well, I could use your computer for the next hour or so."
The over-furnished room with its dark paneling is somber rather
than restful, but it'll do. I have to take a closer look at the card Dan
mailed to himself.
"By all means." She gestures for me to sit down at command
central.
"How is Professor Faule's research progressing?" She
smells like she rinsed her hair with coffee laced with something
extraterrestrial from her husband's lab.
"Hasn't he discussed it with you?" I sit down, lock my fingers
over my head and stretch.
"He will when he's confident that in his research he has
attained a sufficient level of probability worthy of my attention."
"Talking about probability, I've been meaning to ask you,
when you read Al's employment notice on the board, you said you
thought of me for the job."
"Yes? My explanation did not suffice?"
"No one else? I mean, you can't think of any other grad
students or collegues who match the qualifications as well as
myself?"
She thinks about it then says, "As far as I can ascertain,
you're the sole candidate who meets the sufficient and necessary
qualifications--with the exception, perhaps, of myself." She shakes
her head. "My Renaissance research is appreciably more extensive
than yours. However, my knowledge of forensics is negligible."
"Right. Like the notice was--"
"Written with you in mind."
Our eyes meet.
Even out of focus, she must be able to see my aha!
expression, because she says, "I cannot concur with your
conclusion. Mere supposition." She pauses for a moment, then
adds, "His Caravaggios?"
"Fakes."
Her pursed lips speak of her dissatisfaction. I had expected
her to rejoice that no one is about to reduce her to the world's
collegiate B-team with his stupendous finds.

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"And his research? Spurious, or merely skimble-skamble?"


"Spurious. Although his research into me and my life has
been impeccable."
"Hooligan impostor." She pauses long enough to soak up my
smile, then she says, "He will hear your allegations--"
"They're more than allegations."
"He will hear you impugn his motives equally as well in the
morning. Hence, I presume that his fraudulent scholarship is not the
reason you believe it is imperative to induce him to become
fractious by disturbing his sleep?"
"I need to see him about a couple friends of mine."
"Something untoward has happened to Fitz and Chanlee?"
"How did you know?" I ask suspiciously.
"Know what? An evidential conclusion, assuredly, but they're
the only friends you've mentioned in my presence." Right. "A word
of caution: You're predicating your beliefs on the assumption that
confronting him on his turf, as it were, will somehow put you at an
advantage, thereby obviating the risk of deleterious consequences."
"The only thing I have left to risk is my life."
She leans across me to pick up something off the desk, and
I give her a reassuring pat on the back. Harder than I meant to. But
I was thinking of Al.
The way I've been jerked around, my bet is that nothing, no
one I've encountered in the past few days is out of the loop. Nevar's
been suspended in disbelief at my inability to put Al in the picture.
Bless Nevar's evil soul, but he just couldn't believe I could be that
dumb. Me neither. Al counted on me believing in fairy tales. My
belief was so complete, I didn't even have to think about it, I just
walked right in with my eyes open. And by time I blinked, two of the
people I care most about were ensnared in a fairy tale world where
right and wrong are interchangeable, depending on the caprice of
the sick fruks behind all this. Al, with his lying smile and lethal
charm, is as much of a player as I am.
Aurora coughs away the sudden intake of air and keeps
herself from falling face-first onto the desk by bracing her arms. I
move her eyeglasses out of the way.
"This is a whole other side to your psyche that fortuitously I
have hitherto been unacquainted." She holds out a hand. "My
glasses, if you please."
She puts them on and her mouth drops open. She slaps her
cheeks and says, "You have gratefully spared me the funest details
of what is currently transpiring in your life, but one would think you
would have seen fit to inform me that you expired since we last
spoke."
"I'm in a fight for my life, not a beauty contest, Aurora." I
stand up. "I have an appointment with him. He's expecting me." Oh

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yes, he's waiting with bated breath. Only this time he's going to be
the fly. And I don't put flies outside when I catch them.
My phone comes to life. It's Levi.
"Any luck?" I ask him.
Mabie-Toogod points to the door and says as she leaves, "I'll
return shortly."
"You tell me," Levi says, using an officious tone like he's
about to read me my rights. "Guess what I found? No red hat, no
painting and no sketchbook. But you gotta hear the kicker. It's a
real winner: Chanlee phoned in to say she'll be on the job
tomorrow."
"I don't believe it."
"Why? Because it doesn't fit into your fantasies of being
super cop coming to her rescue?"
"I--"
"Shit, Rane. Because of you, I broke into her locker. When
she finds out, she's going to have the rat squad breathing down my
neck. If I catch you out on the streets tonight, I'm going to throw the
book at you."
"Did you get anything on Myrtle or Bernard--"
He hangs up.
"Here," Mabie-Toogod says from the doorway. "Take these."
She shakes out two pink pills from a brown bottle. "Vitamin B12.
Great energizer. No wonder you're in a lethal predicament. All
those toxins in need of purging from your system. You don't require
stupendous amounts of energy to outthink or outrun a miscreant.
All it requires is the correct amalgam of electromagnetic radiation."
I go to pop one in my mouth, but she grips my wrist. "Turn it
so the writing's on the top, and it's facing you. It goes down easier
that way." I shrug and do as she says.
She reaches across the desk, picks up a business card from
a pewter holder and rips up the card over the waste basket. "Trash
onto trash, Almit Faule."
That's a more dignified funeral than I'd give him. But Almit?
He said his wife's name was Alma.
"You know, Aurora, I could use your rubber suit. Because I
can't visit him without getting into the sewer. But you don't happen
to have an old pair of glasses I can use? All I want are the frames."
"Will a pair of sunglasses suffice?"
"How about a wig?"
She nods and smiles like she's flattered I want to look like
her.
"Well, all I have to do now is retrace the maggot's footsteps,
and they'll take me straight to Chanlee and Fitz. Who would have
thought that Snow White would stoop to turning Mother Goose's
breeding ground into a den of inequity?"

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"Don't converse with me unless you're going to make a


modicum of effort to be comprehensible."
"Interesting, isn't it? how we like to believe that any form of
intelligence that's inaccessible to us is nonexistent?"
Instead of chiding me for being impertinent, she smiles and
says, "Finally! Some words of sense out of your mouth. The vitamin
is working already."

Turning onto Kirkewood, I make note of the van and rusted


two-door car parked across from Al's place. But what really catches
my attention is the absence of his car. That, and the Duke is
nowhere to be seen. By the looks of it, I'd say the Studebaker and I
are the only things marring the tranquility of this street housing
children tucked safely in bed. Children who are replaying in their
dreams and nightmares the blood and gore they enjoyed so much
in their games, toys and television shows today.
The only light coming from the house is the street light
reflecting off the outside walls. Wearing Aurora's butterfly glasses
and fluorescent red wig set off grotesquely by Orvin's raincoat, I
walk up the path to the house. Somewhere, behind a window,
hedge, fence or other mundane cover suitable for a coward, at least
one death-loving maggot is lying in wait for me, watching me.
In the porch, I ring the doorbell a few times and rout around
in the hanging baskets for the key. No dice. So Al's been back here.
To snatch Chanlee and Fitz away before I can free them? I try
opening the door. It's locked. I cup my hands around my eyes and
peer through the living room window. Back by the entranceway
leading to the basement, a faint streak lights its way across the
floor towards the kitchen. Are Chanlee and Fitz struggling for their
lives in the basement? There are only so many places they can be
in a house this size. I've searched this place from top to
bottom--That's not quite right. I didn't look inside the foyer closet.
The one that Al claims has a broken latch. Looks like I'll have to go
around to the back and break in. I clip the corner of the box planter
as I head for the steps. What a stupid place to put a planter. I
pause, my gaze transfixed on the two planters flanking the door.
I put the key Al gave me in this one! I lunge for the one on
the right, up against the side wall of the office.
Voilà.
Before turning on the lights inside the house, I close the
curtains. Paint odor wafts through the room that still looks like a
colorblind painter with a sense of the theatrical let his imagination
rip through the place without missing an inch.
The closet door is jammed, so I kick at it until it opens.
Nothing but hangers. I run into the kitchen and look for the source
of the light I saw through the window. Damn, it's nothing more than

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a toadstool nightlight shining in the hall beside the basement door. I


open the door slowly, turn on the basement light and step down
carefully. It's empty except for the paint cans and lumber stacked
on the floor. Back upstairs, I tear from room to room, turning on the
lights as my prospects of finding Chanlee and Fitz grow dimmer.
Al's not here. I didn't expect him to be. In my wild, frantic hope
against hope, I thought I could get to Chanlee and Fitz on time. But
I'm too late.
I get Nevar on the cell.
"I'm ready to negotiate," I tell him.
"Where?" he says, sounding putout like I'm taking him from
something important, too important for him to bother acknowledging
that I'm coming to kill him.
"The Doré."
"Rane--" I hang up.

Pocketing the house key, I open the Studebaker door then


slam it shut and stare over the top of the car at the house. A gut
feeling is gnawing at my brain, that I'm only seeing what they want
me to. No, not simply want, but expect. Well, their benchmark for
me is lower than hell. There's something about the office window
that has never sat well with me. Something's not right with the
proportions. The window takes up most of the wall inside the room,
but looking at it from here, there's plenty of distance between the
window and the outer walls.
Nevar expects me to go back inside.
He and his goons are keeping their distance because they're
cutting me enough slack to ensnare myself.
I know.
But I'm still going back inside.
I get out the measuring tape I took from my bike bag, and
with my insides twisting and churning like they're being mangled by
the tape, I measure from the outside edge of the house to the
inside edge of the projection housing the office: just under 15 feet.
Inside the house, I measure the office. It's 7 feet 3 inches wide. The
closet in the foyer is 25 inches deep, but it extends out a foot from
the outside projection. So 13 inches of closet and over 7 feet of
office, and allowing for the walls, that takes care of about 9 feet.
Chanlee and Fitz are in the other 6 feet.
Behind the books lining the outer wall.
In case Al and any other of Nevar's thugs are on the other
side of the wall, I stifle the urge to call out to Chanlee and Fitz.
I yank out a shelf of books and stare in astonishment at
empty boxes with dust jackets glued on. In frenzied sweeps
powered by mounting rage, I rampage through the other
bookcases. The shelves within reaching distance of the desk

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contain actual books. Ditto for the bookcase on the opposite wall. Al
knew exactly what books I would go for and where to put them.
Nevar's not the only one who's snowed me.
With the boxes reduced to rubble, I kick the wall. And kick. It
doesn't budge. The fiends reinforced the back of the drywall. What
the hell am I doing trying to get in like this, anyway? That's not how
Nevar does it. He just breezes in through an open door. Knowing
him, there's a remote somewhere around here. Unless everyone's
packed up and left because the place is getting too hot.
The entrance to the hidden room has to be close by. I rush
out of the office and swing on the jamb into the bathroom. The
passageway can't be in here. Not with the sink and toilet plumbing
at one end and the bathtub plumbing on the other. And there's a
glass-block window in the outer wall above the sickening red tub.
My gaze lingers on the apothecary drawers labeled with body parts
on the walls. Is the remote hidden in one of them? I pull out the
PIMPLES, OVARIES, NECK AND COLON drawers.
They're filled with boxed-in air like the bookcases.
Fruk, why am I being so methodical? I grab one drawer after
another and chuck them into the tub. And what do I get for my
efforts? Demon angels looking their noses down at me as they
cruise around a celestial domain painted with the blood of heaven's
rejects.
Bloody hell.
I'm going to poke their eyes out.
After I blast my way into the secret room.
I run into the kitchen for a mallet, anything to puncture a hole
in the wall.
All the cupboards are bare.
So is the table. No more photos of smiling Al and his oh-so
perfectly nauseating family. Who are they really, I wonder? Never
mind that, there's bound to be something I could use in the pile of
stuff in the basement.
Zipping to the basement door, I nearly jump out of my skin at
the sound of the doorbell ringing.
Orvin?
I peek around the living room curtains. It's too dark in the
porch to see who's at the door, but the Duke in all his majesty
stands proudly by the curb. I open the door and stare down the
barrel of a gun. Even with his helmet on and the visor down, I know
it's Orvin. So all along he's been working for Nevar. Just another
leg of the Spider.
"Whaddaya do with her?" he says, like he’s impatient to pull
the trigger.
I take off the sunglasses and flash my raincoat at him.

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"What took ya so dern long?" he says, lowering the gun, a


vintage pistol.
"They won't let me play in their games without a full deck.
Where did you get that thing?" I point at the pistol. "It's a Luger, isn't
it?"
"Yup, from The War." He gazes at it admiringly.
"It's not loaded?"
He looks at me like I'm a royal fool.
"Put it away. Quick, I need your help."
He lifts up the visor on the helmet then quickly drops it back
down. "Whaddaya doing with this here place? Trying out all the
dern colors in the paint store before picking one?"
"This isn't my place. Where have you been?"
He takes off the helmet and scratches his whiskers. "You
wasn't here when I came by the first time nor the second. So I got
ta thinking I should lie low 'n watch out fer ya instead of alerting the
enemy yer troops are here." I grab the helmet out of his hands and
motion him to follow me. "I parked the bike down a-ways 'n climbed
the spruce next door. Yup. Must a dozed off, though, 'cause I never
seen ya arriving. I rolled up that there bike quiet as a babe so as ta
keep from alerting the wrong folks. It's just out this front door here."
"Did you see anyone leaving?" I toss the helmet on the
kitchen table on my way to the basement.
Following me, he throws the riding gloves on the table. "Not
long after I parked myself up that dern tree, I saw a woman come 'n
go." I turn around so quickly, my chin flattens his nose. "Yup, she
knocked on this here door a couple times then took off, all hell bent
for election."
"A tall blond?"
"Couldn't rightly say. If she had any hair, it was tucked up
inside a hat."
"A red hat?"
"No. Darker 'n that."
"What was she wearing?"
"Are you gals wearing anything these days? She was driving
an old Buick that was burning oil like there's no tomorrow."
"There is no tomorrow. It's always coming at us, but it never
arrives. Never mind that, I don't trust how dead it's been around
here tonight." He gives me a guilty look like he's let me down.
Touching his shoulder, I say, "Thanks for watching out for me. But
you're lucky you didn't fall out of the tree."
"Howddaya think I woke up? Goldernit. You might wanna
sneak up on that there van across the street, I reckon, 'cause I saw
it rocking, ya know, as if someone's in the back a it. But you gotta
watch out fer the woman living on the other side here. She's been
coming outta her house a terrible lot, spying on this here place."

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"We'll take care of them later. After I find my friends."


I look disparagingly at the lumber and painting supplies on
the basement floor. "Ah, there's nothing here I can use."
"This here paint what ya been using upstairs to--"
"This isn't my house, I told you. And as you can see, these
are cans of white primer."
"White? That there's about the only color you--they ain't
used."
"The office is white. But you're right, there's an awful lot of it
here." I pick up a can. "It's full. I think they were going to paint
everything back to the way it was before they rented this place."
"Now I getcha. This dern place was their warehouse."
"Yes, and I've found the secret room. But I have to tear a
wall down to get to it. I'll tear this whole fruking place apart if I have
to." I look up. "Starting with this copper pipe. We can bundle it and
make a battering ram."
"I'll shut off the water."
I hold my hands to my face and rub my eyes to get rid of
images of Al lolling around in paradise with a boy, a spider, a
woman, a cage and an axe. Five'll get you ten he's sleeping right
now, the bastard. "His bed! We can use the framing from his bed." I
snatch up a couple of cans. "Grab a few, would you? We're going
to drown some angels in paint." He hesitates. "Don't worry, they'll
think we're giving them clouds to play in."
"What the blazes?!" He shakes a can up to his ear. "This
here can's empty."
"The maggots have probably been storing the drugs in
them." I stride over to the stairs. "Come on, we're going to need the
tool kit from the bike to open these."
"Or," he says, putting down the cans, "we might wanna use
my pocket knife."
Prying off the lids of one of the cans I picked up, we find
smelly white primer. In one swoop I empty it onto the floor. Nothing
was hidden inside except a river, pure as the driven snow. It trickles
and flows around us. The rest of the cans are either empty or filled
with 2 ounce plastic bottles of acrylic paint.
"Holly jumpin' junipers! This here is where they hide
rainbows on sunny days," Orvin quips.
"You think we're surprised? Wait'll Daddlewood, the guy who
owns the joint, gets a load of all this. He's gonna want to strangle
Mother Goose."

Al's bedroom looks the same as it did when I searched the


house this afternoon. Which means nothing is really the same.
"Empty," I say, looking inside the closet. I close the sliding
door with such force the petrified branches fanning the walls spring

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to life. I help them along by freeing them from the scroll pots and
letting them fly through the air.
Standing at the foot of the bed, Orvin yanks off the purple
metallic throw. There's nothing underneath but a stained air
mattress.
"Ya reckon?" he says, pointing his knife at the mangy thing.
"Go for it."
Swoosh! And the mattress breathes some life into the
moribund air of the room.
Working as fast as we can, we unhook the steel frame from
the headboard leafed with metal made to look like an oil slick.
"I hate this room," I say with a nastiness that arouses Orvin's
interest, if not his suspicion. The only thing Al said that was
remotely honest was that he's no artist. Everywhere I look, from
the smoky-foiled walls to the chandelier lamp by the bed, I see the
pretentious hand of a dilettante who can't tell the difference
between talent and delusions of grandeur.
Instead of throwing the headboard down, I slam it against
the nearest wall.
Glass explodes before our eyes.
A piece ricochets off the butterfly frames. I jerk back, feeling
like the rest of the shards are tearing apart my spine. Through the
violent opening we gape at ourselves gaping at ourselves in a
smoky-mirrored wall on the other side.
The secret room!

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CHAPTER 22

Orvin and I exchange astounded glances and kick away more of


the glass wall to get inside the room, an oblong box about 4 x 6 feet
that's mirrored on all six sides. And in those mirrors we see a nude
boy, thin and pale, sitting motionless in a tight fetal curl, his face
hidden behind his knees and his back wedged into a corner.
Halogen pot lights glare down at him from all four ceiling corners.
"What in tarnation?!" Orvin cries out.
"Kenny?!" I say, my throat choking back most of his name.
"But you--you're--" I clap a hand over my mouth. Oh hell, Dan used
the life of another child as bait to throw Nevar, the police and
everyone else off the scent. Everyone except me. He and his fiends
have baited and stabbed at me to get me here. I can feel the knife
in the unseen hand, cutting through the flesh in my back. They're
setting me up to die with him.
I shudder, more from rage than horror.
When Kenny looks up at me, will he recognize the mark of
death on my face?
He remains deathly still. I take off the raincoat and approach
him. As I bend down to cover him with the coat, he explodes to life,
hissing, clawing, kicking, punching at me, his eyes squeezed
closed.
"We got a funny way a opening up this here place, but we
mean ya no harm, lad," Orvin says kindly but with parental
firmness.
"Yes, Kenny, your Uncle Stefan sent us," I say, getting a
rush of nausea at the ironic truth of those words.
Kenny grabs the raincoat, hugs it to him and sobs.
"This here's the boy in the papers?" Orvin asks.
"What do you think?" I snap. "Yes!"
Yes, yes, yes, the boy whose tormented cries for help
couldn't be heard by anyone who gives a damn, because he only
exists in the papers where the evil is intangible. But this close, the
evil is more than simply tangible. Like the fires of hell, it scorches
the soul. We're made of the cinders of hell and have the audacity to
call it stardust.
I swear on my own grave that this will not stand.
Orvin doesn't take exception to my harsh tone, because
neither his feelings nor mine are of any concern to him right now. I
take a couple deep breaths to rein in my unbridled outrage. As if all

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this anger and resentment is of any fruking use, anyway. It


squanders my energy, and for what? From time immemorial, no
amount of outrage has ever been enough to eradicate evil.
"Are the creeps still here, Kenny?" I ask. Keeping his head
down, he nods. "How many?" He shakes his head. Even if he
dared, he can't look up in this place because there is no up. No day
or night. Nothing but yourself looking back at you.
"Don't ya trouble yerself no more, lad," Orvin says, stroking
the boy's hair. "We're gonna git them there yellowbellies 'n git ya
back home where ya belong."
"To get you away from them, we're going to need your help,
Kenny," I say, using a piteous tone that assuages my rended heart,
but which also tangles up his basic dignity in the fine line between
pity and contempt. "Will you help us?" I say, ditching the pity.
Without looking up or letting go of the coat, he nods. "You can't
walk on the glass with your bare feet, so I have to pick you up now
and carry you. Okay?" He nods, but closes himself up into a tighter
ball. I put my arms around him and lift him. His sobbing subsides,
but his body shivers against mine. As I start walking, he unfolds.
First one arm reaches up and circles my neck, then the other. Then
he lifts his head but keeps his eyes shut. I hug him to me. Orvin
guides us because I can't see where I'm stepping. But I can feel
broken glass crunching against glass under my feet. "We're out of
the room now, Kenny."
Orvin grabs my elbow and points to the bedroom closet on
our right. The sliding door furthest from us has been pushed back.
He pulls out his Luger. I shake my head and motion to him not to let
on we've seen anyone. Then I point to the cans of paint we brought
upstairs with us, and I carry Kenny back into his prison. It's the
safest place in this hellhole because it leads his captors away from
the exits. He needs a distraction from the terror mutilating his soul.
"Kenny, I'm going to put you down now." Orvin quickly
cleans the glass off the headboard for Kenny to stand on.
The boy tightens his grip on my neck, making it difficult for
me to breathe. "I'd like you to open your eyes and look at me. Just
me, nothing else, not the room or yourself, only me. Please, Kenny,
because we're going to trash the mirrors with paint. You know,
totally slime them, and we'd like your help." He tilts his head back
and squints at me like he wants to believe me but doesn't dare.
With the dark rings under his eyes, he looks like he hasn't had a
welcome thought for way too long.
Orvin places a bottle of paint in Kenny's hand, and with his
hand over the boy's, he squeezes. Yellow paint splatters the wall,
floor and me.
Who's in the closet? Al? Probably. Is he trying to escape or
keep us from escaping?

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Kenny unfolds his legs, jumps down and disappears inside


the raincoat. His dark eyes don't shrink away from me. But he's
wearing an expression on his colorless face that's hard to read
because it's a mixture of caution and excitement, fear and relief,
sadness and joy. Guess you could sum it all up in the word
freedom.
Listening for any movement in the closet, I draw the hood
tighter around Kenny's face and look for needle marks on his arms
as I roll up the sleeves. His arms are clean. He answers my smile
with a shake of his head. "They poked the needles in the other
end," he says, his voice shaky.
Orvin looks anxiously at the closet then joins us. He takes
Kenny's face in his hand and peers into his eyes. "We're sure as
heck no doctors, Rane. We gotta git him--"
"Rane? Do--" Kenny starts to say then checks himself.
"Don't be afraid, Kenny," I say. "What were you going to
ask?"
"Nothing. Rane's a cool name, that's all." He shrugs. I keep
my gaze locked on his face. He must know that I don't believe him,
because he tries looking every which way but at me. Finally, he
says, "I know someone else called Rane. Don't have a hissy or
anything, but she's not like you. She's totally hot."
Orvin doesn't bother to keep his smirk to himself, but the
seriousness of the situation gets to him again, and he says,
"Whaddaya feel like after they shot ya full a them there drugs,
Kenny?" Orvin asks.
"Out of it," Kenny says like Ovin's a dope for asking. "They
stopped doing that. Then they started to….They did other things.
They started to make me...make me...."
No, they didn't start, they continued to mortify your soul.
He bites his lower lip to stop himself from crying.
"Where did they hurt you, Kenny?" I ask.
He shakes his head violently. "They made me…they made
me--"
"There now, lad," Orvin says, hugging him.
"It's over, Kenny," I say, making the hug a threesome. "So
let's really trash this place." He tries to smile.
"Before you start, you might want this." I reach into the coat
pocket and take out his blue cap. He pulls a face. "You don't want
it? It's yours."
"That's for old fogies. Everyone'd call me a faggot. It'd look
good on you," he says to me then eyes Orvin, who swoops down,
grabs the cap, plunks it down backwards on his head and starts
squirting paint with wild abandon on the wall beside us.

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Fruk. I chased down the wrong clue to the right place. No,
this isn't the right place for anyone, even the fiends who created it.
So whose cap is it?
"Kenny, do you have a brother?" I ask.
He shakes his head. "Sister." Aha. "She's four."
"I see." No I don't. Who was riding around in the Prius and
Lexus with Nevar?
"Watch where you're stepping," I say, using my boots to
sweep glass out of the room. "And try not to squirt anything on the
pot lights. They might explode if you do."
Orvin keeps a watchful eye on the closet while he makes a
mess. Kenny doesn't cut loose with the paint, rather, he writes out,
"Suck it up assholes!"
"Uh, Kenny, you've got quite the vocabulary for a
nine-year-old," I say and kick out more of the bedroom wall to get a
view in the mirror of the closet.
"I'm eleven."
The closet door slides open almost imperceptibly.
"But you're no taller than a grasshopper, and the papers
said--"
"I'm not short! I'm average," he says indignantly. "And if you
believe everything you read in the papers, you'd better not read
'em."
The door keeps sliding.
As he turns back to his painting, he trips over the raincoat.
Red paint shoots out of the bottle he's holding. I wipe gobs of paint
off my red face.
"I think you spend too much time with your uncle," I say.
A shadow, birdlike rather than human, appears on the inside
wall of the closet.
"You sound just like my mom." He stops painting and looks
at me, fear gripping his face again. "She's not mad at me, is she?"
"No way, they have a cake and everything waiting for you.
Hope you don't mind, but I had a piece of the cake already because
I knew I'd be coming here to get you."
"That's cool," he says with a shrug. He empties a bottle on
the headboard and stomps in the paint.
"We need something to move the paint around. How about
some branches?" I hop over the glass into the bedroom and gather
up the barren twigs and branches I had strewn on the floor. Edging
towards the closet, I steal a glimpse of what's inside. An owl?! A
strange bird, corpulent and dapper, with dimpled fingers. Al, in his
inimitable style, making a travesty of a noble creature.
I turn to go back into the mirrored box then swing suddenly
in the opposite direction. The branches striking the door thunder
inside the closet. I kick the door open all the way, but Al's gone.

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"What in thunderation?!" Orvin says, running up to me.


"Stay here and watch Kenny. Use your German friend if you
have to, but don't let anyone, not anyone, get him."
"Both yer friends are on duty," he says, patting his coat
pocket.
I smile over at Kenny standing half in, half out of his torture
chamber. "The paint job's looking good, Kenny. Truly disgusting."
"Kick ass," he says, giving me a thumbs-up. Finally, a real
smile.
Zeroing in on the closet, I kick the end wall closest to the
mirrored box. My boot gets stuck in the thin plywood. I yank it free
and kick again. Voilà, the wall comes tumbling down. The doorway
is no more than 4 feet high, so I have to crouch down to see what's
on the other side of the opening. In a futile rather feeble way, given
what I know about the fiends I'm up against, I was hoping that this
isn't what I'd find. But directly before me is a paint-splattered glass
wall through which I can see Orvin and Kenny drenching everything
in sight. A narrow passageway dimly lit by the mirrored room
extends the length of the wall. Cameras and spotlights dangle from
the cavernous ceiling too dark to be perceived.
Kenny's torture chamber of two-way mirrors may have been
built and sustained by an insatiable appetite for drugs, but it was
built for other appetites. Appetites too primitive to know or
appreciate the difference between exaltation and torture, bliss and
pain, happiness and death. Appetites too base to acknowledge the
difference between yes and no. Appetites without subtly or
restraint, that invade the body and consume the soul and the flesh
in the dark. Silently, because the screams of torture and pain are
heard as sweet songs of orgasmic bliss.
Following the corridor, I make a right-angled turn into
another passageway. This one looks like it runs down to the front of
the house. Peering at the two-way mirror rather than through it, I
see a door to the torture chamber. A step ahead on the other side
of the corridor is a glass-block window that's cold to the touch. The
outside wall is painted black like the ceiling and floor.
I stop at the sound of a faint humming.
It sounds like it's coming from the room or whatever it is next
to Kenny's box. I hold an ear up to the wall and hear deep,
monotonous chanting. Then I tap on the wall because there's no
light emanating from it. I thought so, it's wood. Probably plywood. I
press my back against the outside wall to get the thrust I need to
kick hard at the plywood, but I stop at the sound of tapping. My
heart skips a beat at the thought that it could be Chanlee or Fitz,
and it turns to ice at the thought that it could be Al trying to lure me
inside. It's too dark to see any door, and I can't feel any seams on
the plywood. Moving further down the passageway, I come across

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another cavernous space that runs at a right angle to the main


corridor. No doubt harboring more lights and cameras from on high.
This cavern leads to the kitchen, or at least in that direction. But
without any light, there's no way of knowing what or who lies ahead.
I go back into the hall and kick the hell out of the wall.
Yeowch!
Something is reinforcing the damned wall on the other side.
I eye a patch of light cast on the outside wall about 5 feet
down the passageway. Approaching, I see that the source of the
light is a glass-block window in the inside wall. The bathroom
window! Useless piece of crap.
The rest of the corridor has no shape, no end because it's
smothered in darkness. I feel my way to the front wall. Then feeling
my way back, I touch something cold, flat and round with my hand
on the inside wall. The object, a cover of some sort, moves with my
fingers and a beam of light caresses my skin. A peephole?! Al and
who else has been watching me in the office through this cheesy
peephole?
This wall feels like it's made of plywood too. So what's
between the drywall and the plywood that's giving the wall the
strength of a vault? Or tomb.
No one's in the office.
Suddenly, someone's running the other way up the
passageway. The faint light from the torture chamber reveals it's Al,
still in his owl mask. So he was doing the tapping. I run after him,
around the corner, through the closet opening and into the
bedroom. I lunge for him, but he kicks me away. Fighting off dead
limbs of trees, I scramble to my feet, pick up one of the steel cross
pieces of the bed frame and race after him through the kitchen into
the hall leading to the office. I can't see him because he closed the
door. But he's in there. I half expect to hear glass breaking as he
tries to escape through the window, but I know he won't do that
because it'll alert the neighbors.
He's trapped.
I turn the knob.
He locked it.
"Give it up, Al!" I say. "As an artist you're a dud, a complete
failure because your work not only sucks, it's fake." With the frame I
ram the door near the catch. "The only thing you know how to do is
copy because you don't have any genuine thoughts or feelings of
your own." The frame rips through the hollow core door, making a
hole big enough for me to stick my hand through to unlock the door.
"And as copiers go, you're destined for the giddy heights of
shopping mall mediocrity."
What the hell! He's not in the room.

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My gaze rivets on the smaller bookcase against the foyer


wall. It must open into the foyer closet. As I tug at the bookcase to
dislodge it from the wall, Al darts out of the bathroom and hurls
himself around the corner to the kitchen. I chase after him, but he
flies out the front door and disappears into the night. He's no match
for me, not in the long run. But I close the door on him because
he's just another leg of the Spider.
I have to free Kenny from the web.
First, though, those damned angels in the bathroom helped
Al escape. I push their faces in with the bed frame then clip their
wings and watch them flutter to the floor. One last punch and
voil--A flake of paint lands in my eye. I chuck the glasses, yank off
the plaster-dusted wig and wash out my eye. The water turns red
with the paint Kenny squirted on me. No, some of it's blood from the
flying glass striking my face. Fruk, I never thought it was possible to
look or feel this ugly.
Instead of joining Orvin and Kenny back in the mess, I head
outside to get a flashlight from the Duke. Somewhere in this
deceptive tranquility chilled by the fall air, Al is heaving his body
towards oblivion. I step off the curb into a stream from an errant
sprinkler watering the street further up the block. The surface of the
water undulates with sunlight bounced off a moon playing hide and
seek with the stars.
The van across the street rocks. Al in his new hideout, I'll
wager, charging up his appetites from the bottomless pit he traded
in for his soul. Holding the flashlight as a weapon, I start crossing.
But the side door slides open. I dart back behind the Duke.
A diminutive redhead in a business suit steps out.
"Lulie?!"
"What are you doing here?" we chime.
"Don't tell me you're mixed-up in this mess?" I say, having a
hard time giving her the benefit of the doubt. I don't trust her
sudden keen interest in my affairs. Or her solicitude. No one gives
up the Duke without a fight. Unless they're using it as bait.
"I thought I could help you with your investigation," she says
like she expects me to be pleased.
"What investigation is that?"
"Damned if I know. Can't make heads or tails of the comings
'n goings around here."
"I never asked you to make sense of it. All I asked you to do
was get me a copy of the newspaper." I unstrap my computer bag
from the bike.
"I've got it." She hikes a thumb over her shoulder towards
the van and follows me. "It's the September 3 issue."

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I watched a man fall to his death on the 9th. What happened


on the 3rd that made Al so guarded? Whatever it was, it's none of
her business.
"This isn't the same kind of dirt you're used to playing in,
Lulie. There are no goal posts here. Go home." I fish in the bag to
see if June's memory reader is in one of the pockets. It is.
"I've got pins holding my bones together, hon. I don't need
anymore bullshit about how tough you are."
"What do you think you can do for me besides get in the
way?" A car turns onto the street. I dodge behind the Studebaker,
with her breathing down my neck.
"I've got all this surveillance equipment in the van--"
"Coincidentally."
"It didn't just happen to be there, I loaded it up in the van
when I went home."
The car rolls past us, with two young people of indeterminate
sex driving each other wild while the car drives itself.
"Were you in the house all this time?" Lulie asks.
"All what time?" With the bag slung over my shoulder, the
flashlight gripped tightly in my hand and her clinging to me, I make
tracks for the house.
"I came here just before 6:00 as you told me to, hon, but the
house was dead to this world, let me tell ya. So I waited until 7:00
then skedaddled home for some grub and hightailed it back here at
8:15. I've seen some strange goings-on, but I never saw you
coming or going--till now." Before stepping into the foyer, I point to
the Studebaker. "Oh. You're the raincoat. So you came equipped
with fishing gear. Catch anything?"
"No, he got away. What strange goings-on?"
"The bozo went thataway." Her thumb points to the left
towards town. "I caught him with my camera."
"What strange goings-on?" I insist.
"A few minutes after I arrived here, I was watching the house
from the van, and this tall--"
"Everyone's tall compared to you."
"Tall like you. Happy now? Anyhoos, this blond chick
appeared out of nowhere. Just like that--" She snaps her fingers.
"--she was knocking on the door."
"Has she come back out?"
"She never went in. No one answered the door, so she made
herself scarce. Then she gave a repeat performance just after
10:30."
"You got pictures of her?"
"On infrared. Don't know how good the shots are, hon. What
do I know from cameras? They're my husband's toys."
"Was she wearing a red hat?"

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"Black, I think. She sort of looked like the chick who drove by
the Ice Cream Emporium, but this bow-wow wasn't driving a SUV,
she was driving--"
"Where did you see her pop up?" I push her out of the way
to get back into the porch.
"She didn't pop up, I tell ya. She materialized out of the air a
little to the right of where you're parking your carcass." I step
sideways towards the box planter beside the office wall. "Stop."
"Turn on the porch light, will you?"
In the light, I see scratch marks arced on the floor from the
box being pulled away from the wall. I try shoving my hand down
the back, but my fingers can only go in a few inches because the
box is attached to the wall. Lulie, who had been watching me from
the doorway, jumps out of my way to avoid being pushed. I tuck the
flashlight into the waist of my jeans and drop the bag by the
doorway to pick up the bed frame, but Orvin and Kenny appear at
the kitchen doorway.
"We're about done," Orvin says, keeping a protective arm
around Kenny's shoulder. "We haven't got no more paint."
"You're wearing it all," Lulie says and chuckles.
Staring at Lulie, Kenny's smile turns into a grimace. I give
her a sharp look then glance nervously at the bed frame lying on
the floor within her reach.
"The kidnapped boy?!" She slaps her thigh. "I had a crazy
notion that this is what you were up to." She gives me a sneaky
look, like we're sharing a dirty secret. "You've got 'em fooled. The
whole bunch of 'em."
Oh hell, she knows about the dead boy found near Banff.
Don't tell Kenny, you grandstanding twit.
Walking towards Kenny, she sticks a hand in her jacket
pocket. He shrinks behind Orvin. I block her with a side kick. The
flashlight finds freedom on the floor. She staggers then leaps
forward, fists ready. I jump to the side on my left foot and kick into
her with my right. This time she goes down. What the hell? She's
only wearing one sock.
Kenny darts around Orvin and streaks by us to the front
door. I grab him. Punching and kicking me, he screams, "I won't let
you take me. I won't, I won't!" I grab his wrists, twist him around and
pull him to me. Hell, it's not Lulie he's afraid of, it's me.
Kenny looks back at her and pleads, "Help me, please, lady!
Don't let 'em take me! Please."
She pats the sleeves of her jacket, not to dust herself off, but
to ready herself for action. Then she leaps towards me but stops
suddenly.
Orvin's introducing her to his German friend.
"I never played you for this stupid," she says to me.

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I turn Kenny around so he's facing me. "Kenny, we're not


going to take you anywhere," I say like I damned well mean it.
"We're going to call the police and have them come and get you."
"Yeah, right," he manages to say without screaming. Then
he spits on me.
"If you're so hot to get the police, why haven't you called
them yourself?" I ask. His expression has gone way past suspicious
to downright hostile. "When I gave you the coat, I gave you my cell
phone. It's in the breast pocket."
"As if," he says, frisking himself. Hitting paydirt, he pulls out
the phone and smiles until I wrest it from him.
"You can have the phone back as soon as you tell me why
you're so afraid of--"
"I'm not saying anything until after I get to make a phone
call," Kenny says.
"Sounds like too many hours in front a the TV watching them
cop shows," Orvin says. "We're not playing cops 'n robbers here,
Kenny."
"That's kid stuff. I help Uncle Stefan and Darien sometimes
on real stuff," Kenny says.
"Yeah, real cool stuff, I'm sure," I say. "And this other Rane
you said you know. It's me, isn't it, Kenny? You saw photos of me
when you were visiting your uncle, and he told you I was part of a
case he's working on?"
He shakes his head. "You were on TV, and I heard Darien
tell him that you deserve to fry but you're going down till you're an
ugly old hag." No wonder Nevar couldn't stop smirking when he
accosted me up on the mountain. He never noticed I was wearing
clothes.
"Who's this Darien fellow?" Orvin asks.
"Don't you doofuses know anything?" Lulie says, shaking her
head in mocking disbelief. "He's a PI." Some of the tension and
aggression in her stance dissipates. "Listen, old-timer," she says to
Orvin and extends a hand to him. "They call me Big Lulu."
"Ya don't say," Orvin say, warily.
"Put that relic away. The silly thing doesn't even look real,"
she says over the sound of her teeth grinding.
"Ya reckon?" he says with a fleeting smile.
"You don't need to strut your stuff with me. I'm way ahead of
ya. I know you're part of the rescue team." He keeps the pistol
pointed at her and watches her with red alert eyes as she sticks a
hand in her pocket. She pulls out a chocolate bar. "Here, kid," she
says, tossing it at Kenny. He flubs the catch but snatches the candy
up off the floor. "You look like you could use a truckload of 'em."
He starts wolfing it down before he has the wrapper off.

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With her eyebrows raised, she glances around the room,


then she looks at me and snickers. "Like to paint when you've had
a few too many? Or are you some kind of somnambulist who likes
to express herself in the dark?"
"You're a real scream," I say, glancing at blue paint sliding
off the raincoat onto a green and yellow footprint covering up Al's
faux carpet.
She shrugs. "Kenny, tell the woman what she wants to know
so we can all scram."
"You said that you won't go," I say to Kenny. "Go where?
What makes you so sure I'm going to take you somewhere?"
"Because I heard this one guy say they were gonna get help
to move us to a safer place." He grabs for the phone. I almost lose
it to him. All of a sudden, Lulie's shoulder-checking me and the
phone flies out of my hand. While I struggle to regain my balance,
Kenny jumps for the phone flying through the air.
"Run, kid!" she hollers, kicking me back into the closet.
Kenny swoops up the phone and whips around to the door.
While I struggle to right myself, Lulie aims the heel of her shoe at
my face. Jerking back, my head slams against the back of the
closet. Orvin zips by, leaving me to my plight. I grab her foot, yank
and twist hard. She crashes backward, her head just missing the
bed frame.
"Get off me!" Kenny screams. Good, Orvin's got him.
I spring up, grab Lulie by the jacket, haul her back up, open
the door, shove her outside and lock the door.
Kenny thrashes around in Orvin's back-grab hold.
"Cool it, Kenny," I say, grabbing the phone from him. Damn.
No dial tone. "She knows who I am, and so will the cops in a few
minutes because she's phoning them." I chuck the phone. "Don't
bother, Kenny. It's broken." He looks at me like he half believes me.
I pick up the bed frame. "Ask Orvin nicely and he'll let you use his."
Orvin gives me a guilty look.
"Where's the one my father gave you?"
"It escaped outta my pocket when I was climbing that blasted
tree," Orvin says, sounding as uncomfortable as he looks. "And ya
think I could find that dern thing in all them leaves?"
Kenny reaches into one of the pockets in Orvin's jacket. But
Orvin grabs both Kenny's wrists and shakes his head at the boy.
"Maybe we should git him somewheres safe. This dern place is
giving me the willies."
"No!" I thunder, ramming the back wall of the closet. It
doesn't budge, but it makes a hollow sound, like I'm banging on a
metal drum. "She's out there. She'll snatch him. There's no time to
lose. If the police get to Nevar before I do, they'll let him walk.
Watch Kenny, Orvin, and don't let him go."

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There has to be another corridor between the closet and the


office, because the peephole passage is barely 3 feet, if that. So
there's at least a couple of feet missing to make up the 15 foot
width.
"No need ta be so dang hard on the boy. He's in danger."
"We all are." I back up and charge at the wall, making a
dent. That's all. "Didn't you hear him?" I back up and charge again.
The wall starts to give. "The monsters slithering around in their
caves were going to move us. Kenny said us. As in there are others
being tortured in this godforsaken place." Orvin's expression that
oscillates between stupefied and wary, turns to one of knowing, and
he grips Kenny tighter. "To the creeps doing this, life is what their
appetites say it is." Backing up with the frame, I look at Kenny.
"And, Kenny, you're going to have to learn that life isn't about just
you. The other people being held here against their will deserve to
be free too."
His bottom lip starts to quaver, and he bites it. I put down the
frame and crouch down before him. He pulls himself back into
Orvin, who has to brace himself to stay upright.
"Listen, Kenny." I try to reach out to him with my voice and
plaintive expression, but he refuses to look at me. "The cops are on
the way. In a few minutes, you'll be able to talk to your parents.
That's what I want for you, Kenny, more than anything. If you can
get the phone to work, call them. But Kenny, I want the same for
my friends. They're still trapped in their cages, very much in danger.
We know you're scared and don't know who to trust, but I don't
know who to trust, either. Except Orvin. I trust him because he's
putting his life at risk to help me save my friends." Orvin holds his
head up with his chin out, unmistakably proud, yet the cockeyed
grin he gives me looks like he's trying to spell out aw shucks with
his lips. "But you know what else I'd like? I'd like to be able to trust
you, Kenny."
Kenny finally looks at me, confusion creasing his brow. Hell,
I'm only making things worse for him. I have to get Chanlee, Fitz
and myself out of here before the cops come, because if it's the last
thing I do, I'm keeping that appointment with Nevar. I pick up the
frame and charge the wall. This time the closet framing crashes
down and the metal sheet falls back, revealing another
passageway. It's painted black, and like the others, the ceiling
recedes into an abyss.
"I need the flashlight," I say, turning around to look for it.
"It rolled under that stupid-looking thing," Kenny says,
pointing to a garish cabinet by the kitchen doorway. He looks up at
Orvin. "Let me go! I'll show you where the lady is."
The word lady electrifies my heart.
Chanlee's here.

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CHAPTER 23

Orvin lets go of Kenny, but stands guard between him and the front
door.
"Don't go that way, Kenny," I say as he bolts towards the
kitchen. "We don't know who else is in there, and I think this is the
way in."
Surprisingly, he listens.
I flash the light in the passageway. It's deadended on this
level, but a ladder attached to the outside wall leads up to the attic.
As I climb, the air becomes laden with chamomile and mentholated
lavender.
Dan, you rapacious prick. You have an unfair advantage
over me. Unlike you, I need light.
Holding back on the ladder so my eyes are just level with the
attic floor, I pause to listen for any sound of life. All I hear is my
breath racing to keep up with my heart. The scent of lavender and
chamomile is infused with a plastic odor. More cameras? I scan the
attic with the flashlight. Oh yes, cameras, in a cornucopia of audio
visual equipment, most of them pointing down. Hell, I've seen
stores with less merchandise.
Dan's not in sight, but then he doesn't have to be here to
realize his vile dreams. No, that's not it. This digital brothel is for the
manufacture of dreams he and his 10 thousand customers are too
chicken, vacuous and impotent to dream for themselves. Someone
like him always in the throes of ennui devised and designed all this?
No way.
I jump up onto the floor and search for a light switch.
Nothing. But the flashlight reveals a whitewashed cave of
particleboard hastily stapled in place. No one, nothing lives here. All
the black boxes with silver linings are mute, sterile, impersonal
chunks of plastic that turn children's dreams into nightmares to feed
nefarious appetites incapable of being satisfied. Moving as fast as I
can, my hands trembling, I try bringing up an image on the screen
of the camcorder looking out at the street through a peephole in a
door covering an oculus window. No batteries. Ditto for the
camcorders staring through a peephole in the floor. I give one of
them the boot. Fruk, there's a black plug in the hole. I put my ear up
to the floor and hear chanting.
Elevator music in hell.

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"Orvin!" I shout. "Get me a branch from the bedroom. And I


could use your pocketknife. Quick!"
"Coming," he says, his voice moving away from me.
I zip from camera to camera, box to box. With this digital
hardware, it's not reality at 24 frames a second, it's reality at 24 lies
and torments a second.
All the peepholes are plugged. Worse still, Al took the guts
out of everything. The stolen lives captured by the cameras, all
dead and abandoned. Without memories.
Except me.
To Dan and Nevar, I'm just a carrying case for the real
goods, an instrument that hasn't had her guts ripped out, or her
memory defiled then erased. Yet. My appointment with Nevar is an
appointment with death. And I still haven't figured out how I got on
the devil's wish list.
Streaking around the cave with the flashlight, I catch sight of
a piece of paper sticking out from behind a subwoofer on the floor. I
kick the box out of the way and pick up a folded newspaper with a
crossword puzzle up front. September 3. The paper I got Lulie to
check out for me. Most of the puzzle is filled in, but Al got stuck on
14 Down: a ten letter word with f as the fifth letter, meaning light
bringer. I brought Lulie into this with her own set of knives to stab
me for a ten letter word?!
Orvin gets showered with newspaper pieces as he passes
up the branch and pocketknife.
I break off a twig to poke out a peephole, but the twig snaps
without budging the plug. I don't want to try again using all my force
because there may be another mirrored cell below, and the
shattered glass could injure whoever's trapped inside. I resort to
prying the plug out with the knife, and I find myself peering down at
the desk in the office. The stars are hell's peepholes. I unplug a
hole in the middle of the attic and see Kenny's defaced prison. So I
take three steps back and pry open another hole. This time, I see a
shadow receding into infinity. I think that's me.
Another mirrored box.
I tap the glass with the butt of the knife. Like a genie popping
out of a bottle, the glass plug flies away, and chanting blasts out.
Then Chanlee steps into view and looks up.
"Chanlee!" I say from so deep inside, it feels like my heart is
speaking. She doesn't respond. Her face scares me because it's
drawn, hollow-eyed and drained, like they forced her into a time
machine that aged her ten years. I cup my hands around the hole
and bellow over the chanting, "Chanlee, can you hear me?"
Keeping her arms folded across her chest to hide her nude
body, she moves her lips, but I can't hear what she's saying. She

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looks totally pissed off, so I don't think she knows it's me. I whip out
my notepad and write:
You're a sight for sore eyes. Where's the door?
I shove the note through the hole, and she grabs it on its
way down. As she reads it, her face blossoms into a smile of a
thousand meanings. She kisses her finger tips then jumps up,
throwing me the kiss. That really has to be the best kiss I've ever
had. She points to my left. So the entrance is through the
passageway Al was hiding in.
Clambering down the ladder, I shout, "Orvin, Chanlee's in
the hellhole next to Kenny's. Cover my butt with the bed frame, will
you?"
Running through the bedroom with Orvin and Kenny
charging behind me, I snatch up the metallic bed cover. With the
flashlight leading the way, I see that the corridor opens up into
another black box. This one has director's chairs amongst audio
and lighting equipment.
And doors. Two of them.
But no cameras.
While I look for a way to open the larger of the two doors,
Orvin and Kenny look for a way to shut off the chanting.
Finally, my fingers locate a recessed button, and the door
slides back. Slowly. Chanlee's hand reaches out through the
narrow opening. I clasp her icy hand in mine. Then she squeezes
her body through the widened opening and into my arms. Some
people give hugs you can't connect with. Chanlee's not one of
those people. I swear my heart soared out of my body to meet hers.
I don't have to hear what she's trying to say. I can feel it.
Even over the sound of the infernal chanting, the sliding door
sounds like a cage rattling. Holy hell, she hasn't been trapped in a
room with walls, she's been trapped in a metal cage.
And I've finally got the picture.
Al's picture of the unseen Spider overseeing a caged boy
being caressed by a woman who looks as free as a bird. Looks.
She's only as free as a bird in a cage, because the sketch Al
showed me was a close-up. Pull the camera back and her cage
comes into view. To Al, I'm just a fly he's locked in the embrace of
two windowpanes.
Suddenly the chanting stops. We all luxuriate in the silence
then explode with joy. Yet the merriment only masks the pallor and
shadows of fatigue on her face. And Kenny's. And mine, if I dared
look at the mirrors behind her. She reaches out a hand to touch my
face, but I clasp her hand and say, "It's only paint. It'll wash away."
Her look says she knows it won't. Maybe she's right. We've
all been scarred by this.

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While she wraps herself in the bed cover Greek-style, I make


the introductions and wipe the mist from my eyes.
I give Orvin a hug and whisper in his ear, "Before I met you, I
had two best friends, both of them lost to me. Now I have three best
friends. Thanks for your friendship. I only hope I can repay your
trust."
He pulls his head back and says with a smile tinged with
sadness, "Whaddaya call believing in me, eh? You go git that there
pal a yours. I'll stay here with the boy 'n cozy up ta the police." I nod
and let go of him reluctantly.
"Here ya are," he says. He slips off his, er, my jacket, helps
me into it and pats the right pocket. "There ya go." My fingers circle
the cold metal of the Luger.
"You and I were getting to know each other pretty well
without ever having met, right, Kenny?" Chanlee says. He casts his
gaze on the floor. She tries to reassure him by slipping an arm
around his shoulder and leaving it there. But a part of her has been
brought to heel. She's subdued, not in a thoughtful way, but in the
choking, silencing way that comes from too much pain. She
catches me studying her, and her eyes tell me that the maggots
have been sedating her.
"All experiences change us," she says with too much
resignation for my comfort. "Some of them redefine us."
"Yeah," Kenny says. Chanlee and I are both surprised to
hear him speak. Like whenever we grownups think we're saying
anything important, it's beyond the ears of any kid. "I seriously
couldn't stand my little sister, but now…." He lets his voice fade into
his thoughts then says abruptly, "She'd better not be jerking around
with my computer and stuff."
"Kenny, were you lured away from your home by someone
pretending to be your friend on the net?" I ask for Chanlee's benefit
because I already know the answer.
He shakes his head and says to Chanlee like she's the one
who asked the question, "Uncle Stefan phoned and asked me to
meet him."
What? That's not the answer I expected.
"Sure it was your uncle's voice?" Chanlee asks. He nods.
"Chanlee, you and Nevar didn't phone me this--" I start to
say.
"I haven't seen Stefan since Sunday morning. He--we--"
"Chanlee! Don't you get it?" I say and laugh at my own
stupidity. "Those fruking maggots have been taping our voices and
using them to put words in our mouth." Her perplexed expression
turns sour.
Kenny gets the idea and pooh-poohs it, saying, "I figured
that out soon as the fat guy shoved me in the car." Chanlee gives

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him a look that makes his head pop out of the raincoat like a
turtle's.
"Wouldn't you know," she says with a halfhearted chuckle.
"The cop is the only one who didn't get it." Orvin and Kenny stare at
her with confused interest. "I didn't get to see or hear any of them.
Did you, Kenny?"
"They wore masks and stuff," Kenny says, sounding
impatient to be somewhere, do something, feel something, hear
something else. "Except I heard 'em a couple times."
"Well, Kenny, you said you wanted the police," I say in
answer to his and Orvin's unasked questions. "You've been sharing
this prison with a cop for the past two days." If Kenny's surprised,
it's masked by the confused embarrassment on his face.
"A cop who'd kill for a cola," she says, breaking out into a
sweat at the thought.
"I'll be a monkey's uncle," Orvin says.
Kenny's face brightens, and he looks at Chanlee like he's
seeing her with clothes on for the first time. "You were doing an
undercover job, right? And you slipped up, and these wacked
bozos found out and threw you in this totally wacked dungeon,
right?" he asks.
I shake my head, and she nods.
"You see, kiddo," she starts to explain but catches my
pleading look to shut up. She gives me the slightest of nods to tell
me she understands that the more he knows, the more he's
contaminated.
"They've got Fitz," I tell her.
She catches her breath then sighs. It's like she's breathing in
soot because dark patches shadow her face again, and her
breathing is labored. I give her a hug and whisper, "Dan's got him.
Staying or going with me?" The mention of Dan's name makes her
body jolt, so I know the answer before she says, "Going."
"Quick, you guys," I say, "we have to check if any of the
cameras are loaded. Kenny, we're going to hoist you on our
shoulders, and--"
"Cameras!?" Chanlee says like we tripped off a flash in her
face. "I thought the bast--" She severs the word with the precision
of an axe.
"I hate ta throw a wrench 'n all in the works," Orvin says,
stroking his whiskers that have sprouted into a beard. "Where's the
dern cops?"
"Good question," I say. "Orvin, go check out what's
happening on the street. But don't go outside, and stay on watch
there unless there's something going on we should know about."
He steps around me to get to the corridor. "No, try this door." I go to
the small door. "It should come out somewhere in the kitchen or the

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hall leading to it." The door won't open. "Okay, go around the long
way then listen for my tapping when you get to the kitchen."
"Why didn't you answer my tapping?" Chanlee asks me. I
stare at her like I'm not the only one who doesn't know what she's
talking about. "You tapped six times, I tapped five, you know, the
way we used to signal each other."
"Ahh, right," I say. "Well, I wasn't trying to signal--ah, never
mind. Where's the light switch for this room and that passageway?"
That's what I say, but that's not what I'm thinking. I can't shake the
thought that I'm only here because Al, Dan, Nevar and all the other
maggots want me to be. And I can't stop asking myself why Kenny
and Chanlee are still alive. Al and Dan have jumped ship with their
booty of false memories and stolen lives. Why are they leaving
behind the living proof of their crimes? Maybe Chanlee knows. But
we can't really talk with Kenny around.
"We'll look for a switch on our clothes hunt," she says,
leading Kenny into the dark corridor.
"Fine, but you're better off with the throw," I say, running my
hands up and down the walls. "Al's clothes are--"
"Did you say Al?" she says, her head reappearing around
the corner. "Your boss Al?" I nod, and she groans.
"At least you came into this with your eyes closed. Me? With
the birds chirping and the sun lighting my way, I walked right into
the grave they've dug for me. You're not the intended target." I try
getting the tech equipment to shed some light.
"Kuan-yin. Once they've got you, their intentions are the
same regardless."
"All this is his choice for me, for us. But I'll be damned if I'm
going to let him chose whether I live or die." I give up my search for
the light switch. It must have been programmed into one of these
gutless players. The only thing Al left working is a DVD player with
the disk of chants in it to keep Chanlee from hearing us. To give
him lead time for what? To do what?
"By him, you mean Al?"
"Al, Dan, Nevar--"
"Stefan? No, no, he doesn't fit into this the way you think.
Unless you've tapped into something I should--"
"Shoot, SHOOT! She wasn't knocking, she was tapping!"
She stares at me like the elevator's stuck between floors. "A
woman was at this house tonight. Twice. And each time she
knocked instead of ringing the buzzer. But she wasn't knocking, she
was signaling Al."
"The woman in red?" Chanlee says, finally seeing what's in
my mind's eye. "You deciphered my message! I was wondering
how you found us."
"Actually--" I start to say.

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The small door behind me springs open and Orvin steps into
our box.
"Later," Chanlee says and disappears around the corner.
"Pretty nears as I can figure," Orvin says, beckoning me
over, "when the pantry door's open, this here door is locked. Look,
this here's another passage up ta the attic."
"That's why Al was acting like a scared rabbit. He was
trapped in here along with his victims. When I was looking through
the kitchen, I never bothered closing anything." I'd snicker if my
weary heart would let me. "Good going, Orvin." I peer up the black
passageway. Some tech equipment must be covering the opening
that I can't see but know is there. "Uh, will you please get my
helmet and gloves from the kitchen?"
"You betcha."
I go to the wall shared by Chanlee's prison and look for
levers, buttons, anything that will move the wall between her prison
and Kenny's. From the look of shame on his face when she said
that they have been getting to know each other pretty well, I'd say
they've been getting sneak peeks at each other. To nurture a
voyeuristic appetite, Al's been reversing the lighting in their boxes
to force Kenny to see her while he's in the dark, then forcing her to
see him while she's in the dark. The wonders of glass and a warped
mind. But one of the mirrors has to be moved out or back for this to
work.
I hold the flashlight up to the corner that joins this room with
both of theirs. I thought so, the three walls merge at this point
without touching. Using the bed frame, I smash into the corner, and
a narrow door extending the height of the room springs open. Voilà:
a pulley and chain mechanism that moves the walls between
Kenny's and hers. A metal one is sandwiched between two
mirrored panels.
"I'm going to keep watch at the front," Orvin says, handing
me the helmet and gloves. I nod and put them on.
Then I stand, bed frame in hand, at the doorway of
Chanlee's prison and breathe in the lingering odor of the gas the
maggots have been using to sedate her. They, the lords and
queens of porn, slavery, drugs and snuff, dream us up and set the
stage for their virtual postmodernist theater of the absurd by
annihilating every boundary they can think of. And we play our
parts like we really mean something. In return we get to partake in
the look, the feel, the touch, the smell of evil.
I step inside, and all hell breaks loose. Thousands of images
trapped in mirrored glass cascade down around me as I smash
everything in sight.
Just like that, I'm standing alone in a heavy metal cage.

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Al, I will never choose to surrender myself willingly,


ecstatically to this. My life is my work of art, and I will never
surrender it to you or anyone else.
Chanlee and Kenny join me to see what the commotion is
about. He's still in the raincoat, and she's still wearing the throw, but
now they both have towels tied around their feet. He has the
relieved look of someone who just threw up. Holding onto Chanlee,
he's letting go, retching up the sick ideas he's been force-fed.
"There's nothing in the cameras on the other side," she says.
"The cops!" Orvin huffs from the doorway. "They're here.
And that dern Big Lulu's taken off with the Duke and the van." All of
us stare at him like we're deaf mutes. He's stripped down to his
undershirt and a pair of boxers with pictures of a woman's face on
them. He tosses me the computer bag I had left in the foyer. The
wig and eyeglass frames are stuffed into a side pocket. "I told ya,
June keeps giving me pictures of herself," he adds hurriedly,
tossing his jeans and golf shirt to Chanlee. I hand him the helmet.
Kenny throws his arms around her. "Your family and buddies
have been waiting too long to see the Kenny they love," she says.
"We've made it this far, you and I. The rest is a piece of cake." He
glances at me. "Go with Orvin." She pushes him away gently.
"Orvin," I say, "try to keep them out of this area for as long
as you can. I have to check the rest of the cameras. If you need to
get hold of me, call my father."
He nods, takes hold of Kenny's hand and leads him into the
pantry.
"You're going to be A-okay, Kenny," I say. "Because you're
stronger and smarter than them."
"Make scrotal purée of 'em," Kenny says as the door closes.
Chanlee and I exchange sly glances.
"Grab one," I say, pointing to the speakers.
"As soon as I get into these." She takes her time changing
into his clothes.
"You can shake a leg faster than that, Chanlee." I hop onto a
speaker to reach a camcorder retracted up against the ceiling.
"Let the police do that. It's not like we don't already know
what's in the damned things."
"Anything I can get on those maggots is another negotiating
tool." My strip search of the camcorder is fruitless, and I rush onto
the next. "There's no such thing as having too much to negotiate
with. If I end up with six aces, it just means I'm playing with two
decks to their one."
"All right, all right. But first I have to pee up the yin and down
the yang."
"You can pee to your heart's content after we finish this."

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No sounds, no cops, nothing disturbs us as we tear from


camera to camera like fleeting moments being chased by time.
Nothing disturbs us but a rising tide of panic. No time and no
guts of any kind in any of them. Feeling as useless as a bandage
stopping up a hole in a wet sponge, I whisper, "We should be
able to make it out through the back."
"I'll help you get out, but I'm going to stay and--"
"I'm meeting with Nevar, and Dan's going to be there
because--" I stop at the sound of voices echoing down the
passageway leading to Kenny's chamber. "Shit! They've just
discovered the caverns."
I bolt past her to the pantry door. "Stall them!" The kitchen's
crawling with cops for sure. I tuck the flashlight into my pants and
tear up the ladder. If the attic doesn't have another way out through
the back of the house, I'm going to be trapped up there. I push up
on the attic door with all my strength, but it only gives an inch then
falls back. I jump down to get the bed frame and almost land on
Chanlee.
"Why are you trying to escape the police?" she asks. "They'll
bring Dan in."
"Unless I make that meeting, Fitz is going to die. I've got 10
thousand reasons to keep Dan from killing him." I ram the door, and
whatever was on top of it topples over with a crash that's bound to
attract the attention of the cops.
"You're acting like a fugitive. You didn't kill Dan, did you?"
She uses the modulated voice of a cop trying to soothe and
rearrange a deranged mind.
Throwing the frame up first, then my computer bag, I lift
myself into the attic. "What would be the point in killing him? The
gods are replicating him faster than I could kill him. If you can get
away, meet me at--" I stop myself because she'll tell the police.
She'll protect me and Fitz into our graves.
I shove the door back in place, throw equipment on top of it
and zip over to the closet entrance. The scent of lavender and
chamomile is gone, replaced by the smell of fear.
My fear.
"Check out this one," a voice says below. "It looks like it--" I
close the door and pile equipment on it, then zero in with the
flashlight on a lone speaker up against the back wall. It's the odd
one out in this perfectly ordered chaos of plastic corpses. Looking
for a trapdoor, I hurl the speaker aside. No door, only another
peephole. This one with the plug out. I stare down into Al's
bathroom. Where they made Kenny do "other stuff"? The speaker
must have a camera in it. I rip off the face of it and yank out one
of their solid-state camcorders.
I blink in surprise.

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This one hasn't been denuded.


I pocket the memory card and freeze at the sound of
someone climbing the ladder behind me. The closet trapdoor
rumbles and shakes. I shine the flashlight along the floor by the
speaker. There has to be another way out. Has to be. Please let
there be. The closet door flies open, and the cave echoes with
digital carcasses crashing to the floor. I don the wig and butterflies,
turn off the flashlight--and my hope along with it--and step forward
in surrender. The floor moves under my foot as I catch the edge of
a board. No. Another trapdoor. As the cop climbs into the attic, I lift
the trapdoor.
Shit, shoot, shite. I can't jump down into the passageway
because it's filled with another cop staring up at me.
She's startled at first, then she smiles.
Oh hell.
Surrounded.
Cornered.
Defeated by good intentions.
"That you, Rane?" an unfamiliar voice says from behind a
flashlight on the other side of the cave.
Holding an arm up to shield my eyes from the light, I say,
"You've got me, where is she?" He can't be looking very hard,
because the wig is perched precariously on the top of my head.
"Nothing up here worth seein, I'm heading back down."
Keeping the flashlight on me as I walk past him to the closet
exit, he says as if I were asking him for permission, "Go ahead."
Instead of going down, I pull off the board covering the oculus
window and look down at the street. Neighbors in their night clothes
mill around behind the yellow police tape circling the area. They
look and look in stupefied frustration for the crime, any crime.
Leaving, I drop my legs down into the hole leading to what?
One delay after another, unless I can sneak by them all through the
escape hatch. Yeah, escape right into the cruisers swarming the
street. But if I stay low, I could cut across the porch and into the
neighbor's yard--which is bound to be infested with armed
sharpshooters. Or, I could just walk out of here like I have
permission.
I give myself the briefest yet most satisfying of smiles, tuck
my ponytail up into the wig and drop myself down the chute.
"You still in the basement?" the cop says, still standing by
the door above. "We need some light….I don't care if you have
enough light. We need light up here. Check the fuse box."
The fuse box!
Of course. Al broke the circuits to the cavernous porn
factory. To…to….Why?

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My feet are touching the floor now, but I'm not breathing
easier at the thought of being a few steps away from freedom. It
makes sense that he would leave his victims in the dark, but in the
darkness that can't be touched by light. Not in this world. I didn't
catch Al off guard and put him on the run. Oh hell. He was waiting
for me to come and turn the lights on.
"Don't touch the fuse box!" I yell so loudly my throat hurts.
"It's rigged to blow!"

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CHAPTER 24

All of one mind, everyone scatters in opposite directions.


Kenny and Orvin! Where are they?
I spot them nestled in the arsenal of police vehicles on the
street. Then I jump to the side on the porch and search the melee
for Chanlee. She whizzes by me, grabbing hold of my arm and
yanking me forward with her.
"False alarm!" a man's voice says from inside the house.
His words are echoed in a woman's voice.
The panic dies down.
But I don't trust my relief or anyone else's. "Bomb!" I yell.
The stampede explodes into action again. "Bomb!" is a
complete statement without attachments. You run for cover, then
you thank the stars that you never thought to ask questions. Unless
you're a cop like Chanlee, who questions the source. Instead of
bolting, she eyes me like I'm a kid up to mischief.
I shake off her grip, jump over the porch balustrade and
unhook the baskets of geraniums. There's no way I'm going to
concede any life to Al and the rest of the monsters. As I'm leaping
down the stairs, I wish I could kick myself in the butt. I'm acting like
I don't believe what I'm thinking, feeling or saying. The only reason
the maggots were able to bait me and jerk my chain is because I
believed them.
My belief is their power.
Someone nearly knocks me over, crashing a metal box into
my side as he zooms by me. Chanlee tears after him. Hell, how
many cops were in there?! At the gate, I glance over my shoulder
and see a shadow approaching the entrance from the inside.
Without haste. "Move it!" I shout and keep going, with so much
haste, the geraniums and I body surf the asphalt.
I gaze at the house. Calm, quiet, resolutely indifferent in the
face of the tumult. Looks like I'm wrong. The maggots don't want
me dead. They didn't rig the fuse box to blast me to hell along with
the devil's house of joyous torments. Not me. I've got their 10
thousand captives. As the seconds pass and no one else escapes
from the house, voices start to fill the restless air. One of them
says, "Where is she? Let me talk to her."
"Never mind me," I yell in the direction of the voice. "Make
sure the house is completely evacuated."
The oculus window lights up.

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Oh freak! Someone turned the lights on.


"Duck!" I shout and violently kick over a uniformed cop trying
to get up beside me. Then I cover my head with my arms.
Boom!
Flames lick the sky, and the earth jolts under and up through
my body.
I gasp at the cruel, beauteous flames of evil flicking horror
onto the faces around me. The wind teases, urges the flames over
to the house next door.
A faint aroma of coffee flows through the hallucinogenic
atmosphere, giving me a lift. To where? Up is just an illusion that
leads us all six feet under. I dust off a fragment of green shingling
from the back of my shoulder and pick up my computer bag.
An arm slips around my shoulders. "Here," Orvin says,
handing me a coffee. My smile gets swallowed up inside the
ceramic mug.
He's wearing a heavy overcoat, with a scarf and gloves.
"That fool neighbor." He says in response to my questioning look.
"She said she's the one that called the cops." He sticks a hand into
the coat pocket and pulls out a phone. "She gave me this here. It's
your pa's."
The coffee warms whatever's left inside me.
"It's a dern miracle nobody died," he says, watching the
horrific, strangely alluring and mesmerizing spectacle.
One look at the desolation on my face, and his beatific smile
vanishes.
"It's a worrisome commentary on our species that a miracle
is what happens when our dark side doesn't win," I say, shivering
from the heat burning my face.
"Maybe so, maybe not. I read somewheres--can't rightly
remember where--that a miracle is the defeat of cynicism 'cause it
gives the lie ta what we're so dern certain is impossible."
"Hell, Orvin, I'm not cynical enough." I stare down at the
geraniums spilled out of their baskets on the cold, ungiving road.
"True cynics are always prepared for the worst. If I'd been more
prepared, we wouldn't be standing here decorated in the ashes of
the person who just got blown away."
"I thought they was all out," he says, tugging at his whiskers.

"Someone flicked a switch in the fuse box. And somewhere


unseen, part of the universe is laughing. I didn't worry about the
lights because I felt we were safer in the dark. But you know, Orvin,
the more I learn of life, the more I suspect that darkness is an
illusion. There are only realities that can't be seen."
He squeezes my shoulders. "Go git your friend. Go on with
ya. Show 'em a clean pair a heels."

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I exchange the empty mug for the cell and make a run for it
as fire trucks, sirens blaring, turn onto the street.
"Rane! Wait for me!" Chanlee shouts behind me.

"Rane! I can't keep up," she says, struggling to get the


words out of her winded body when we're a block away from Al's
hell-sent message to us.
I turn and jog on the spot. "Go back, Chanlee! You'll be of
more help there."
The fire lighting up the eastern sky behind her looks like a
tempestuous sunrise. But this is a starless night with rain hanging
in the air. And it feels more like early evening than early morning,
because the lights are on in all but one house on this street that
only a few minutes ago was just another sleepy retreat. Now it's
alive with the fire threatening and beckoning everyone to follow the
wind to the flames.
"You need my help, too," she says trying to catch up to me
and her breath.
"Do you really think they're going to negotiate with a cop
present?" She shrugs with her face and shoves her hands in the
service jacket one of her more gallant colleagues shrouded her in.
"Huh, do you?"
"I'm more than a cop, Rane. I'm also your friend."
"In this case, which one comes first, huh? I know you,
Chanlee, you're a cop through to your soul." She comes to a cold
stop.
"Keep moving, will ya? Stopping like that is bad for your
heart."
She shakes her head but resumes jogging in place. "What
you're saying is bad for my heart. I know the dangers involved with
your mission."
"And I don't?"
"Yes, but--"
"But nothing.
"--I'm not on the job, and I'm not going to let being a cop
come between me and your life."
"Really? That's easy for you to say when the decision isn't
yours to make."
"So you've tested me and flunked me in one fell swoop?! All
with the unthinking certitude of a fascist. You've forgotten, kiddo,
that when they tested you for the service they gave you a chance to
fail. And they're giving you another chance."
"Is that what you think this is about? That you made the cut,
and I didn't? It's not enough that I saved you, I have to--"
"Why bring that up? It's not my gratitude you're after, it's--"
She shoves me so hard I have to step back quickly from the curb to

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keep from whispering sweet nothings to the sidewalk. I'm still


blinking when a car swerves up from behind me onto the curb.
Not a car, Lulie's van. "Get in!" she orders.
Using different words, Chanlee and I tell her to get lost.
"Where's the Duke, Lulie?" I say, clenching my jaw as if
she'll cough up the bike if I growl long and hard enough.
"The Duke?! Lulie?!" Chanlee says to no one in particular.
"Chanlee, this is Loco Lulu," I say, keeping my gaze on Lulie.
"Where's my bike, you furkhead?"
"Safe and sound where you'll never find it unless you stop
calling me names," Lulie says and gives me a prissy, caustic smile.
"You're completely nuts if you think we're getting into that
deathtrap with you," I say, turning my back on her. Chanlee starts
hoofing away from the van before I do.
"Oh, I think you want to get in. I have something for you,"
Lulie says in the most unenticing of voices.
"Let me guess: it fits between my eyes and makes blood
soup of my brains," I say, and trip on a crack in the sidewalk as I
race to catch up with Chanlee. I'm getting so tired, my coordination
is off. I'm tired of Lulie's bullshit, of running through a morass of
evil. The faster I try to go, the more it sticks to me.
Lulie lurches the van forward onto the sidewalk, backs up,
swings around and follows us. "Look here, back at the house I
thought you were in cahoots with this piece of shit," she yells out
the passenger window. "I hid the Duke from you and the scuzzball."
A shitty scuzzball?
Al?!
She has Al in the van?
I'd like to get my hands on the S & M professor. But he's
probably using her and his carcass as carrots to get me and
Chanlee back into the cage as sacrificial offerings for the Spider.
Lulie has to be another leg of the Spider, or she wouldn't bother to
dig up something that grows and thrives in the darkness. And dirt.
On the other hand, she likes to amuse herself by kicking up dirt and
leaving a trail of it behind her. Either way, no more nibbles for me.
Uh-uh. "It's not your bike," I say, keeping her in the dark about my
suspicions in order to give her enough lead to dangle the carrot.
Chanlee joins us.
"Chill, Rane. CHILL," Lulie says. "That's what I thought then.
Hell will freeze over your dead body before I'd let you sully the
Duke with the blood of an innocent child. Hear what I'm saying?
Scuzzy wasn't the one I was set on hogtying. No sirree. Not till I got
ta thinking. I know Fitz. He's totally not into boys or any of this sick
shit. And you're his babe. Didn't hurt none that I heard the news
about Kenny's body being found near Banff. So for kreessake, hop
in."

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Chanlee breathes out Dan's name, and I nod. She looks


down and shakes her head.
Seeing that so far she might as well be blowing it out her
butt, she adds, "That got me real curious. Were all you guys having
me on, or what? But I had to scram because the snoopy old biddy
next door picked up a phone out of the leaves, you know, like
phones grow on trees, and she goes 'n calls 911. I heard her
blabbing about people hiding in cars and in her tree, yadee yada."
"You're a lying moron, Lulie," I say. "But even you're not
enough of a moron to leave a child in the hands of people you
believe are mashers, just so you can joyride around with a
scuzzball."
Chanlee and I approach the corner, and Lulie swings round
in front of us, cutting us off from crossing the street. "Enough
hemming and hawing," she says, sliding open the back door. "Get
in!"
What I see disgusts me no end, but puts a smile on my face.
I punch the air out of a plucked owl, bound and tethered,
with the toe end of a sock dribbling out of electrical tape sealing his
trap shut. Or is it a stuffed goose dressed up as an owl? "Here's
your chance to meet Al," I tell Chanlee. "The pimple on the butt of
death."
Chanlee stares at him in disgust without smiling, while he
tries to gasp for air. Against the blue-grey of the van's interior, he
looks like a beached sea monster. The kind that dies violently, only
to rise from the murky sea again and again.
"The unseen eyes," Chanlee says quietly. A muted voice, not
in abeyance but in the face of the unspeakable. She turns away
and throws a look up at the night sky that's lowering itself to meet
us. The unseen stars are sprinkled with poisonous thoughts of him.
"Actually, Chanlee," I say, "he's had you hooked up to 5
thousand pairs." I catch Lulie's eye. "Did you have him corralled in
the van when you were in Mother Goose's playpen?"
Lulie cackles and nods. "I saw him come flying out of the
house like this demented beach ball, and I snapped a flash at him.
Then all it took was a boot in his gut--Can't ever get close enough
to a scuzzball like this to cane him--and kaboom! he was sucking
up asphalt. Hauling him back up was the hard part."
Without warning, Chanlee reaches inside and tears off his
tattered mask. "You! You don't deserve the luxury or dignity of
being covered up." Her eyes glisten like mirrors lit from behind. She
toys with the front of her uniform like she wants to tear it off. If we
were back in her prison, this turkey would be stuffed and dressed
with mirrored glass. "You've been disguising the wrong part, you
dumb shit. Your brains are in the other end." His eyes, indifferent

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rather than hostile, meet hers. Is it possible to get through to


someone who's empty inside?
"Will you guys shit or get off the pot?!" Lulie says. "Someone
might see him."
"Here, Al," I say, yanking off my wig. It was beginning to feel
like mutant lice were waging war on my scalp. I chuck it at him. "For
your next incarnation." I throw the eyeglass frames at him. "What's
he doing in your van, Lulie?"
"Like I told ya," Lulie says impatiently, "I snapped a flash in--"
"That's how he got in here," I say. "I want to know why he's
in here. And this time, don't take the tourist route."
"You're not the only one who wants to bag this babe," Lulie
says. "The whole city's up in arms about the boy's kidnapping. The
ones who aren't lusting after the $100 thou reward, want the pervert
shoved where the sun don't shine."
"And which camp are you in?" Chanlee asks.
"All I think he's good for is pushing up daisies," Lulie says.
She tugs at her seatbelt to get it off her neck. "But I also believe in
the law and due process."
"Sure you do," I say. "But your kidnap victim might beg to
differ."
Lulie stares at me with disdain bred of thwarted pride. "I still
don't know if you two shit-magnets are on the level, but I was
hoping you'd take this crazy pile of shit off my hands." She keeps
looking around nervously, like she's expecting company. "What
about you? What camp are you in?"
"They abducted Chanlee and--"
"Shitaloo!" Lulie says, casting a sympathetic gaze at
Chanlee.
"You're only wearing half your uniform, hon," Lulie says to
Chanlee. "Can't make up your mind which side you're on? Or are
you just covering all the bases like every other ambitious cop?"
Chanlee's about as interested in answering as Lulie is interested in
hearing an answer. Why would she need to hear Chanlee's answer
when she knows more than we're telling her? But Al stirs and gives
me a weird look like he finally learned something from me. "But
you've bagged the wrong babe, Lulie. This maggot's just a singer,
not the song."
"Babe?! As if!" Chanlee scoffs. "He only seems like an infant
because the concepts of right and wrong are too abstract for him.
All he cares about when he wants something is how much effort it's
going to take to get it."
"Infants are way ahead of him," I say. "They have potential,
and they're not moral cowards. He won't take a stand on anything
because he's afraid it'll bore him."

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"He's smart enough to know how to get around his


conscience."
"What conscience?"
In the face of her passionate hatred for the man, I feel rather
vacant. A mislaid leg of a Spider doesn't hold all that much
excitement for me.
"Hey!" Lulie yells. "For crying out loud, will you two cut it out
and--" Without warning, she peals out, leaving us stranded.
Not quite.
Two cops in a cruiser screech into her place.
"Eh, Chanlee! How's it going?" a dark-eyed beauty in the
passenger seat says.
Stepping forward with a welcoming grin, she says, "Trying to
get some space between myself and the past two days." She
braces herself with her left hand on the roof of the cruiser and
bends over for a tête-à-tête with him. "So, Smiley, what's up?"
"This your friend, Rane Lavita?" he asks, trying to see me
through the crook of her arm.
I smile at him like he just asked me out on a date, and try to
look like I'm too cool to fall all over him right away. He doesn't see
the tremor in my hands, because I have them shoved in my jacket
pockets. I wish I could see her face. Which way is she going to go
on this? Is she going to buy me more time by lying to him?
"That was her in the van," she says, sounding like lying's her
forté. "She's heading ho--"
"To 724 Belisaire," I say quickly to direct them away from the
Doré.
"Belisaire Place," Chanlee adds, drumming the roof with her
fingers. "Have you met Lulie?" They both look at me, both smiling
for different reasons.
"Told you," the cop in the driver's seat says, sounding ticked
off about being right. "Lavita has red hair and glasses." He gasses
it.
"What do you want her for?" Chanlee yells to the back of the
car.
Smiley sticks his head out the window and yells back at her,
"The Sergeant wants to talk to her. And Levi wants you to check in
with him."
With them still in view, we walk with forced restraint across
the street. "There are a lot more of them where they came from. All
of them hot-to-trot to get me to lead them to a cop killer," I say. She
remains silent, probably because she needs time to chastise
herself for going against her better judgment. I hope that's not the
reason. As soon as the cruiser is out of sight, I grab her from
behind, lift her off the ground and swing her around in a bearhug.
"My bud's back."

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"Think so?" she says as I set her feet back on terra firma.
"Maybe it's just compassion fatigue, but I think I left her back in that
room." She gives me a wounded smile. "I told myself not to look at
the boy. I told myself I wouldn't. But I looked. That old Chanlee
belongs back in the time when safe streets didn't mean disposal
bins for needles, and there was nothing sinister about a nude
picture of a baby. Remember, kiddo, how our parents proudly
displayed au naturel baby pictures of us in gilded frames? Seems
like a hopelessly long time ago."
"Almost as long as your face," I say, trying unsuccessfully to
inject something light into the lead balloon enveloping her.
"Maybe the universe isn't nearly as linear as I like to think,"
she goes on like I hadn't spoken. "Remember how we used to try
imagining infinity? No matter how hard we tried, we'd always end
up thinking of a straight line going on forever."
"Right, until it occurred to us that there's probably no such
thing as infinity because like the universe itself, it's always creating
and being created."
"Maybe that's all cockeyed too," she says thoughtfully.
"Maybe we can't grasp infinity because the gods are the keepers of
the boundaries. Ya think?"
The wind carries my answer to the gods.
Ahead of us, a man and woman wearing housecoats over
their pajamas, cross the street, in a hurry to partake of the disaster.
I drape an arm over Chanlee's slumped shoulders. She points to
the chairs on the porch of the vacated home, but I shake my head
and start jogging.
"Time isn't my mortal enemy, but it will be if I don't get to the
Doré before the cops do. Fitz's life depends on it."
She keeps pace with me without complaint. "We have to get
him out of their hell. I know what he's going through. And I never
want to feel that helpless again. Kuan-yin. Imprisoned by my self."
"That fruking cage was just for show. We enslave ourselves
with our sense of sin. The difference between them and us is that
the creeps get off on being a slave to their sense of sin so much
they use it to enslave others."
Neither of us speaks for a few minutes, her unspoken words
weighing heavily upon us. Then she says, "I never saw them
watching, but I could feel them just as surely as I can feel the cold
air tightening my face." She pauses. "I feel like my soul has been
wrenched from me."
"To them, your body and soul were merely products being
prepared for consumption. Don't give in to those feelings, Chanlee.
Don't."
"I…I…They fuse a cancerous growth onto your soul like
you're a lab rat. Then they record every excruciating detail as the

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cancer consumes you, twisting, warping you into something


malignant. Until you're begging for death to rescue you."
Death, tangible and merciless as a predator's breath on your
neck, can it ever be a gift? Either my lungs are burning, or my soul
has caught fire. Either way, I'm not going to feel comfortable
breathing again until I get Fitz back.
"Out here, it doesn't seem possible that we could ever get so
mind-fruggled that we would actually believe it was our own fault," I
say.
"Insane, isn't it? But that's how the unhinged criminal mind
operates. The perpetrators go about their business of destroying
you as though they're just Wish Masters executing our wishes."
"Tell me about it. I played my part so well there was virtually
no difference between my will and theirs. But we got a few things
wrong. For instance, I wasn't supposed to take Mr McPickles over
to my parents'."
"And I wasn't supposed to sneeze or make the connection
between the paint--"
"So the sneeze was a message?!"
"You mean you didn't--" She stops and stares at me in
disbelief.
"Keep moving."
She resumes jogging then stops again. "You didn't
remember our old signal?! Remember? When we got on the phone,
a sneeze meant DANGER. You know, when we couldn't talk
because our parents or brothers were circling our wagons." She
starts running again to catch up with me.
"Chanlee, we haven't used that dumb signal for at least
fifteen years. My mom figured it out after about the second phone
call. And why would you use the damned thing in one of your
messages to Fitz? How the hell would he know what it meant?"
"He could have let you listen to it. Except, I didn't use the
signal with him."
Trying to hide my surprise, I turn my face to the street and
say, "You sure?"
"Uh-huh. Rane, I got mind-fruggled, as you say, but they
didn't abduct my brain."
"Did you see him on Sunday?"
"No, no. I haven't seen him since last--"
"Never mind. Dan's goons chased you thinking you were me,
but in your last message you said you had lost them and were
going on your big date. With Dan, I take it? And he threw you in the
funny house?"
"That wasn't my last message. The sneeze was. But you're
right about my date being with Dan. I played into his hands by
going along with his story about Myrtle's parents, you know, so we

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could be together without being hassled by the likes of you. But as I


was leaving the house, I decided to check the painting. You know,
to see if anyone had gotten to it while I was dancing on fire in your
shoes. And presto! there she was, the woman in red."
"Hiding in your house?"
"No, in your sketchbook."
I snap my head to the side to see if she's joking, and a
branch hanging down whips the side of my face. Blood warms my
hand. It's only a scratch. But bloody hell. "I never sketched any
woman in a red hat."
"She's wearing a toque in the sketch."
"The only person I sketched with a toque on was--" I stop
abruptly and stare at her incredulously. "--was at the bus station in
Banff. The bum snickered at my work. But if you're right, he wasn't
a bum or a woman in a red hat. He was your date, and my
assassin. No way. What makes you think the three people are one?
You said that the hat was covering most of her face."
"So I couldn't see her face. So what? I also said that she ran
like she was arthritic. When I was with Dan, one of the things I
learned about his--" She stops herself, covers her eyes and shakes
her head. "I can't believe I reveled in his touch." She shudders. So
do I. "I couldn't believe my luck. This wonderfully unmarried hunk
just fell onto my lap. But there's absolutely nothing about him too
good to be true."
I start to speak, but she rushes over my words. "I know,
kiddo. That's what you think of Stefan. But I thought Dan was the
most attentive lover anyone--Attentive?! The louse wasn't attentive,
he was vigilant. Always in control, always on the lookout for
something more to consume. Kuan-yin, why dwell on the hideous
unchangeable things? It's just more mind-fruggling." Keeping her
eyes covered with one hand, she waves away the thought with the
other. "One of the things I learned…" She uncovers her eyes, but
stares out blankly. "…about his body is that he's had surgery on his
right hip. In your sketches, you caught his body weight shifting to
the left."
"He was dragging his right foot a little, but I thought I was
capturing the shuffle of a ghost with nowhere to go. Besides, it's
more of a caricature than a character study."
"But Rane, it's your exaggeration of his features that reveals
his identity. You gave him a prune for a nose, and Dan's is just like
that except his is--"
"Where are the sketches?"
"Well…."
"Dan took them?"
"That's just it, I don't know. I left the house with them. And
the painting. The idea was to give them to Levi for safekeeping. To

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be on the safe side, I didn't tell him what I was up to or what was
coming down. But I intended to go through with my date with Dan,
you know, with Levi covering me. I never got the chance. When I
opened my garage door the lights went out on reality. I came to tied
up in the back of my car. The bastards used duct tape." She rubs
her wrists. "My coat was pushed up around my head, so I couldn't
do, see or hear much of anything."
"Sure it was your car?"
"Absolutely. All cars smell like cars, but like snowflakes, no
two are exactly the same. My car smells like…like my car. But the
cocky bastards left the cell in my pocket. Whatever they used to
knock me out gave me a wicked hangover. Geeze, it felt like
explosions were going off in my head. But I kept pressing redial
with my nose until it started to bleed. I finally got through to you,
and sneezed to warn you. But they punched me with a needle, and
the stuff they injected into me sent me right into orbit again."
"If anyone but you told me that, I wouldn't believe a word."
"What difference does it make whether the three people are
one? We both know that it's Dan, Dan, Dan, up the yin and down
the yang."
"No. Dan's just another leg of the Spider."
"What Spider?" She doesn't wait for my answer. "You think
Nevar is the Grand Wish Master? Kiddo, you can't seriously be
thinking of climbing back on that old hobby horse?! All roads lead to
Dan."
An image flashes in my head of me traipsing down the
yellow brick road while Nevar watches me. In my chains. In my cool
shades, protecting, obstructing me from enlightenment. Hell, for all
the good I've been, I might as well be one of Al's victims stuck to
flypaper. If I'm ever going to make sense of Nevar--no, not of him,
but of this whole rotten mess he's got me trapped in. I have to
deconstruct his actions stone by stone because he's built his life
getting stoned from one day to the next. Or so Fitz would have me
believe. Fitz...what rock has he buried you under?
"Your car was parked in Nevar's driveway," I say, trying to
get back into the rhythm of what she wants me to believe and why.
"By Dan."
"We don't have time to banter with Fitz's life. Listen…." I give
her a crash course in how to round up 10 thousand suspects while
the Wish Masters send you their best wishes by jerking your
chains.
Instead of clarifying matters, however, my efforts only seem
to puzzle her. "You think the memory card from the post office didn't
have any number up at the top left corner because it was the first
card and it started with zero? That's a weird way of going about it,
because if you just have that card, how would you be able to

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reference it to the others? Unless all the numbers on that card add
up to more than a client list. Maybe it's not a client list at all. Maybe
it's code for something else, ya think?"
"Fruk if I know. Yet how could I not know when it's a dead
certainty that it holds my life in the balance?" My anguish comes
out in my voice.
"We'll get it analyzed. But if Dan's not the woman in red,
then…" She pauses to connect the dots before my eyes. "You think
she's the blond who was chasing Stefan up the mountain?"
"No, I think the woman in the red hat is Myrtle."
"And Myrtle is Dan?"
"No, because I've seen them together. Never mind that,
Chanlee. We have to concentrate on the 10 thousand suspects.
Don't you see? The person who hid the memory card in my hand
mirror planted it in my bag the day I went to the mountains. Nevar
definitely got his hands on my bag. And if Dan is the guy in the
toque, then he had access to my bag too. Which ever way it goes,
both of them knew I was going to be there."
"They can't be working together, if that's what you're getting
at."
"No? Why not?" She catches my accusing look and quickly
averts her eyes. "Nevar told me to think about who knew I was
going to the mountains that day. The list is awfully short. Besides
you and--"
"You don't think I--" She gags on the thought.
"Sunday, when you were being chased, you weren't trying to
warn me, you were trying to get me in the line of fire so you could
force them to play their hand."
"I knew what I was doing. I--"
"Sure you did, that's why you ended up being Mother
Goose's little dog that got whipped for getting its tail burned. But
even if you did know what you were doing, I didn't. And it was my
ass you were putting on the line for them."
"You think--" she sputters with rage flashing in her eyes.
Then in the silence that seems to stretch past all boundaries, the
rage vanishes and she says, "I swear to you that I never betrayed
you with him or them."
"I know." I touch her shoulder lightly. "At least I hope they
haven't programed you to believe what you've been saying is
true--but, and this is a big but--"
"You think I'm too mind-fruggled by Stefan to know where
my loyalties and duties lie?"
"My relationship with you isn't about him." Or is it? my facial
expression asks.
"It is if you have to ask."

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We both try to hold our own while backing away from


something tearing us asunder.
"Either way, it means I was set up right from the start. I didn't
just happen to see Kenny with Nevar. I was set up to think I was
seeing Kenny."
"Why you?"
"Proximity."
"Uh-huh. To what?"
"Maybe not my proximity, but my expendability. Because I'd
been making noises about splitting for Italy, I gave them an
erasable target. Just another hapless soul who vanishes on her
travels."
"You haven't blown away any roads leading to Dan. And no
wonder! You can't see past that wall you've put up between
yourself and Stefan. At first I thought you were closing yourself off
from his feelings. But you know what, kiddo? It's getting as clear as
that dismal look on your face that it's your suspect feelings for him
that you're rounding up and choking off. Talk about 10 thousand
suspects."
"His feelings for me?! My eye! None of them are real.
Sunday morning he said that he went to bed with Bambi and woke
up with a Gila monster."
"He what?!" she says, trying not to laugh. "I can't--I don't
believe he--" She bursts out laughing. "Sometimes, Rane, you can
be so dense. He was paying you a compliment. It's a take on Rita
Hayworth's line about her lovers sleeping with Gilda, the sex
goddess, and waking up with Rita."
Oh.
Suddenly, I'm aware that I'm standing on a sidewalk in a
collapsed reality without left or right, day or night, sky or earth,
nothing but thoughts cruising at the speed of light in the infernal
moment.
"Chanlee, while we stand here, Fitz is--he's--" Troubled,
troubling thoughts dispose of my words. Was he kidnapped, or is
he working with the police? But why would he work with the police
to stage his own kidnapping? Damned if I can make sense of my
suspicions. "Chanlee, is there anything you know about this as a
cop that I should know before I confront Dan and Nevar?" She
looks at me like she doesn't know what I mean, but I can see
through the gossamer web they've spun around her. "Who did the
blood samples on my blouse belong to, huh?" She doesn't want to
answer, because she must have found out it belongs to a cop who
was slaughtered by the snuff pronographers I'm pursuing. So she
set herself up as a decoy to flush out Dan and the rest of them.
"How does it benefit you to keep me in the dark? Shit! My
bloodstained skort. I don't remember seeing it amongst my things

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after the psychos reassembled my place." One look, and I know


she's wearing the skort under her skin. "You and Dan let the
Watcher get away. Who's the Watcher really working for, Chanlee?
Who are you really working with? The Watcher? Nevar? Fitz?"
Without batting an eye or making any attempt at being
surprised or indignant, she says, "Been wondering how long it'd
take you to ask me that. He's working with us, uh, with the police."
"Every corrupt cop on the take is working for the poli--" I stop
myself. "Who? You don't mean Fitz?! I don't believe you." Oh yes I
do. All she'd have to do is use me without Italy as bait to get him
onside. But she's shielding Nevar, and I wish I didn't know why.
"I was going to tell you this after--"
Lulie's van screeches around the corner up ahead and
careens towards us, followed by Smiley, looking grim as hell in the
cruiser. We jump back into a freshly pruned bush. What the hell,
I'm getting used to being stabbed in the back.
With the smoke from their tires still rising, we run in the
opposite direction.
CRASH!
Metal crunches metal.
Then metal clangs and screams like it's being dragged with
great force against metal. Chanlee whips around and bolts towards
the accident. I hold back. Only for a split second. Then I resume my
race to the Doré.

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CHAPTER 25

Seven blocks to go.


Fruk.
By time I get to the Doré, Nevar and Dan could be on their
way to conquering and defiling other worlds. The creeps must have
heard about Kenny by now. But Kenny isn't the loose cannon
they've been trying to blast out of commission. I am. I can think of
10 thousand reasons why they'd swim in a sea of narks for a
chance to blow me out of the water. But they only need one reason
to run for cover. I give Nevar a shout.
"Rane?!" he says. All he did was say my name, and I know
he's peeved, antsy, nervous, volatile and looking for blood.
"Still at the Doré?"
"Yes, but--"
"Dan there?"
"Yes, b--"
"I'll be there in 15."
"Rane!" he yells.
I hang up.
The phone buzzes in my hand.
"Screw off, Nevar," I say, holding the phone away from my
ear.
"It's not safe here. Let's meet at--" he yells.
"What?" I yell over him. "Can't hear you."
He swears under his breath then says a lot more quietly, "It's
not safe here. We should meet at--"
"Is it safe anywhere on a spider's web?"
Ice pellets stab at my head and bounce off my jacket.
"There are too many police around," he says, dodging the
question.
"Really? So why aren't you in custody?"
"It's you they're after."
"Do you have my painting?" I throw at him while he's thinking
the other way.
"Uh, no."
"But someone working with you does?"
"Yes."
"Chanlee?"
Pause.
"Who gives a damn about the painting? It's not worth--"

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A cop car joins me on the sidewalk from behind.


Maldoon's voice booms through a speaker, "Boss wants to
see y--" He swerves to avoid wrapping the cruiser's front end
around a fire hydrant. The side mirror catches the sleeve of my
jacket, swinging me around. The twisting motion of my body frees
the jacket and the phone. It says a big hello! to the sidewalk. That's
one way to turn Nevar off. I bolt for the intersection. Maldoon tears
after me like his life depends on finishing what he was saying. As
in: the boss wants to see me dead. If he doesn't use his superior
power and speed to mow me down before then, I'll turn south at the
corner, run like hell long enough to get him to follow suit, then do a
sharp about-face and head north away from the Doré. The
headlights of an approaching vehicle blind me as I cut a tight
corner, stretching every muscle past the max to avert being
slammed out of this world by one of Nevar's goons.
"What are you waiting for?" Lulie screams from behind the
headlights.
The side door is open. She slows down just enough to let me
take a flying leap into the van. Then she smokes it. My feet land on
Al's bedimpled face. Through the back window, I watch Maldoon
tear south--without slowing down.
"Doesn't look like he's going to pursue us," I say, too
suspicious and mystified to be relieved.
"Probably been called to help his buds out at the accident,"
she says. "If they haven't already mailed themselves to hell." She
chuckles, then in the rearview flashes me a self-satisfied grin.
Al gives me a look of comprehension worthy of a walrus in
need of feeding. I don't trust her determination or reasons for
rounding up this gift-wrapped lame duck and offering him to me. If
due process was all she was concerned about, she would be
stealing the show at the bomb site, by dumping him on the ashes
as the last torment rages. For her own reasons, which I'm sure
have nothing to do with the law, she's trying to take up the same
space as me. She doesn't leave any room for trust. What I trust is
Orvin's friend in my pocket. We catch each other's leery gaze in the
rearview, and I give her my address.

"So, Al," I say. "Wish you wouldn't look at me like that. It


makes my heart go pitter-patter and my stomach growl."
His eyebrows hang down, still and broken.
Turning my attention to Lulie, I say, "You're stirring up grief
for all of us by taking off like a crazed bat out of hell. The cops don't
take too kindly to hit-and-run drivers."
"Unless they're the ones doing the hitting 'n runnin'," she
says.

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Even with the seats folded back into the floor, the monster
out-of-his-element is taking up most of the space back here. Where
the hell am I supposed to sit?
"They took the corner too wide and did an up-close and way
too personal with the back end of a truck parked on the street,"
Lulie sings on in a smoky key that's uniquely hers. "Then trying to
back out of the mess, the cluck-clucks tried mailing themselves in a
postal box that grabbed hold of their tail and wouldn't let go nohow."
I don't say anything right away, so she adds after a few har-hars,
"What's the bright idea of siccing them on me?"
"Fitz."
I don't hear her speak, but I see her fold into herself as his
name caresses her lips. She knows something about his
disappearance. So does Al, but for him truth is what you lie about.
"Who told you he was taken hostage?" I ask.
"You did."
"Like hell I did. I never mentioned his name."
"Duh."
"You can deduce a lot from the absence of something, I
suppose, but nothing I said or didn't say spells out hostage. When
was the last time you saw him?"
"On Saturday when we made the trade for the Duke."
She's only making a half-assed effort to convince me, but if
what she's saying is true, then I must have been the last one to see
him before he disappeared. No. He put the Duke in Stanley's care.
When, though?
"When on Saturday?" I ask.
"He--"
"Cut the bullshit! You're going in the opposite direction to the
Doré."
"Thanks to you, this van's way too hot. I have to do a
switcheroo with the Duke. Mind chilling, hon?"
"You put the Duke out on these roads, and the three of us
will hydroplane slick as hell through the pearly gates." The sleet
pelts the windows like the gods are coming to get us.
"You should have thought of that when you turned the cops
on me. So unless you've got any other bright ideas, shut up."
In the rearview, I watch her eyes, restless, alert, steeled for
instant misery. I can't say that I like her all that much, but I admire
her audacity. She drives like she has nerves of steel and the wings
of Al's angels.
One little nudge from Orvin's friend and she'd spin around on
a dime, but she's right about the van. What the hell, I could use the
time to squeeze some shit out of my pal, Al. If ever there was a gift
horse that deserves to be kicked in the mouth…. And I should
forearm myself with the contents of the memory card I found in the

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attic. I'm pretty sure it was left behind for me. As a trump card or
the card that ruins the flush? My talk with Chanlee has left me in
the dark. The darkness that comes from crashing through a level of
consciousness. A raw, primeval, filthy, sickening, pestilence is
oozing all over my thoughts, making me question whether they're
mine.
Time for a little diversion.
"So, Al," I say. "How do you propose to get out of this, huh? I
can see that you're stumped like you were with 14 Down in your
crossword." I lean forward and lower my voice conspiratorially. "For
about two weeks now you've been savoring the moment when you
finally figure out the answer for yourself. But because I know how
much you love pain, I'm going to hit you where it really hurts." His
throat emits this toothless, candyass growl. "Shh, you don't have to
thank me now. Wait till I give you the answer." I whisper it in his
ear.
He throws death wishes at me with his eyes.
"Feel like giving up your pet role as Mother Goose's retarded
son?" I ask. "How about playing a guinea pig instead? I have a
theory I'd like to test. Your limitless passion for pain will guarantee
you a knighthood in hell, never fear. But I'm curious to know
whether your passion for inflicting pain on others comes from your
inability to feel your own."
I reach into my jacket and pull out two peephole plugs I took
from the attic to poke his eyes out if I ever got the chance.
"What are those?" Lulie asks.
"Eye-candy and ball ticklers for psychopaths," I reply.
With him watching, first with a defiant kind of interest, I point
the black butts at his face. "Ever seen a more beautiful pair of
eyes?" I say and smile like I'm giving candy to a baby. "First you
kiss these, then you kiss the dust." In a flash, his eyes fill with
terror--what he sees as sensual fire in the eyes of his victims. "Gee,
Al, I haven't even started yet, and you've already proved my theory
wrong. Obviously, your love affair with pain is limited to trying to get
others to do your suffering for you." I tickle his chin with the sock
dribbling out of his mouth. His jaw, turning to petrified putty with
tension, vibrates from a deep-throated growl. "I know you don't
believe in Burke's dictum about everyone having the right to be
protected from their own stupidity. But guess what? Neither do I, Al.
I can't think of any reason to resist your eyes begging me to brand
you with your love of insulting and torturing the body. I can see that
you're dying for a love poem, so ardent it will make your soul take
flight."
His neck, waist and ankles are tethered to the floor and his
arms are cinched behind his back, so his attempts to rid himself of
my ardent attention and allurements are in vain. "The art of torture

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is to make the excruciating moments last, right, Almit? Or is it


Alma?" I press the plugs against his eyelids. His whole body
stiffens and quavers. "Like what you see, my sweet? Am I whetting
your taste for suffering? Is it excruciating enough for you?" He
grunts, his nostrils flaring, his pores oozing. I increase the pressure.
"Let me know when this starts to bore you. I have countless
imaginings of what I can do with this fine set of eyes. Oh dear,
you're making them sweaty. But that's what happens when you give
me the liberty to use and abuse your body without any restrictions.
Ooo, keep it up, keep it up, Alma. Your stifled cries are moans of
ecstasy to these eyes watching you flower."
His eyes, pleading, desperate in the crudest way, look past
me to my silently approving audience in the front of the van. "You're
in luck, Alma," I say. "We're the most understanding,
compassionate, empathetic of watchers. And not a spider amongst
us."
"Whatever you do," Lulie says, "don't trash him. Not in my
van. And no mess. He's not here, remember?"
"Funny, but I'm not here either," I say. "No wonder you and I
were destined to meet, Alma."
His body, racked with anticipation of what is and isn't bound
to come, begins to convulse. "Oh, Alma, cool it with your cries of
praise for the indomitable, unrelenting, incredible decency of my
art," I continue. "There's a stench in the winds of your fanatic lust
for more." I ease the pressure. He breathes with relief so intensely
the air blasts out his nostrils in spastic snorts. "Which is your
favorite: this way, or this?" Putting the plugs together, I roll them up
and down his neck, softy, slowly suffocating him. His bulging eyes
show no particular preference. "Want me to stop?" I ask. He's too
choked off from his sanity to nod with any enthusiasm. "Sure? As a
purveyor of human flesh, you know that when you say no more,
you're only asking for more. Your body is dying for more: willingly
surrendering your life, Alma, to transform you into nothing but a
useless, unwanted thought of me. A perfectly thankless, pointless,
worthless ascesis."
He escapes by passing out. A windbag choking on his own
contaminated air.
He's too easy to kill.
It would be sooo easy to choke the truth out of him. What
truth, though? Reality is a moving target.
The truth is, I don't want the murder of this empty carcass on
my hands. We don't get to keep the lives we take, but we have to
take them to hell with us. Screw that. My heart and soul are with
Fitz. Well, that doesn't explain why I feel suspended like the rain
stealing out of the sky into the wind. Everything I feel, deep and

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superficial, exalted and base, is being consumed by my hatred of


the Spider.
"Cruddy balls, Rane," Lulie says. "You didn't go and cock up
his toes?!"
"He just fainted from too much ecstasy."
Her driving and griping ease up.
I feel him up, looking for his wallet. "Didn't he have any ID on
him?"
"Here." Lulie tosses back a black wallet. "Nothing to get
excited about, hon."
She's right. I toss it back.
"What's his real name?" she asks.
"Beats me. I'll give you 10 thousand guesses."
I pick up the peeper plugs then stamp the sweaty butts onto
his forehead. A residue of black paint remains on his skin, like two
hollow eyes drilled into his head. But the tacky paint on the plugs
lifted up part of his eyebrows. Reaching over, I pluck a couple of his
remaining brow hairs and look at them with the flashlight. The roots
are made of glue. I reach for an eyelash and voilà, several come
unglued. He must paste on each and everyone of these suckers
everyday. I try to lift up his hairline, but all I get is a peek because
his rug is woven on. Shit, shoot, shite, what would the universe be
like if gravity were as powerful a force as vanity?
The plucked goose stirs and opens his eyes.
"Al, Almit, Alma," I say. "You give a whole new meaning to
the phrase cut and paste. How did a slimeball as ugly as you ever
get to be so conceited that you actually believe you're special? So
special you have the right to do to others what no one in their right
mind would be able to do to you without puking."
"No getting away from it, Scuzzy," Lulie says. "You're one
intolerably ugly pansy."
"You're not a pansy, are you, Alma?" I say. He looks at me
like he's savoring a tragic ending for me. "He shoots his wad off at
every increment on the Kinsey scale and right off both ends. Isn't
that right, hotshot?"
"Ah-so, the dunghill's not gay, he's an omnivore," she says.
"Yesss sirree, Scuzzy, you're one butt ugly omnivore with so many
folds on your butt, you could open up a bakery and sell your buns
by the dozen."
So far, no cops. When she concentrates on her driving, her
faults become invisible and the van becomes one with the night
wind.
I leave the plugs on his eyes for him to push away with his
limbless terror. Then I push back Lulie's camera equipment to make
room for myself, and I sit back cross-legged against the side door,
the computer bag on my lap. I retrieve the camcorder card from my

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pocket and pop it into the reader. "You're going to help decipher
what you left behind for me," I say to him. "Don't know how much
help you'll be when you don't know how to move your lips without
lying. If your body needed sincerity to stay together, Alma, you'd be
a pile of bones and other rubbish in the gutter." I rip the tape off his
mouth and the sock comes with it.
"Heavens! That's better," he says, gulping down the crowded
air like he's the only one allowed to have it.
"Shut up!" Lulie says. "Life is as close as you're ever going to
get to heaven."
Gluttonous predator that he is, he keeps gulping air. "You
know, Alma, you're just a common thief," I say. The memory card
isn't empty, but the only pictures coming up on the screen are of
Al's demonic bathroom. With no one in it. He must have recorded
over something he didn't want the wrong eyes to see.
"That I am not. No," he says.
"You're stealing every time you breathe, and the space
you're taking up is nothing short of thievery," Lulie says. That's not
quite what I was going to say, but it'll do. "Crazy pile of shit." With
every word, she sounds more and more like all she wants to do is
lose her temper.
"Crazy is one plea he can't cop," I say. "Alma here is
certifiably sane. He just does whatever his heartless body desires."
If thoughts and actions without feeling can qualify as desire. "A
question for you, Al. Why did you try to incinerate me in your
inferno back there? Nevar knows I have his 10 thousand
customers."
His eyes, as inviting as mucus-infested putty, relay a vile
message to me.
"You're hesitating, Al," I say. The more I see of the bathroom
on the screen, the less I wonder what it would feel like to drop a
load in hell.
"No, my sweet," he says, his voice dripping acid, "you are.
You took your eyes off me."
"He's got you there," Lulie says. "You didn't finish choking
him with those whatsits. But say, arse face, how does it feel to be
taken as a hostage instead of being the taker?"
"Everyone gets taken," he says. "Oh yes, all of us we are all
being held hostage by life."
"By death, you mean, fathead," Lulie says.
Al and I exchange glances. We both know he means life, but
we let her correction stand.
"Tell me, Al, does anyone know how to get out of this
universe dead or alive?" I ask.
"Art it takes us to the truth beyond the illusion of reality," he
says with professorial condescension.

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"This from the man who holds the truth hostage in his
wacked brain," I say and tsk, tsk. "You're confusing reality with the
universe. You can leave any number of realities without leaving the
universe, you dumb fruk. Do you really believe that by
confabulating reality in your maggot-infested head, that you can
actually free yourself of any and all consequences of your actions?!
Oh, but you're Caravaggio incarnate, the great creator of
waspwaisted auto-erotic realities." I snap my fingers in his face. "I
keep forgetting, you wallow in the realm of the gods where the rules
of human existence don't apply." I shove my face into his and yell,
"But, you pious fraud, all the gods that ever were and ever will be
are as trapped as the rest of us because without any universes
what are the gods? Where are they?" I pull back, a wound-up top. I
glare into his eyes and come up with a blank. "You don't give a shit
about anything. You can't even muster up enough interest in your
own lies to defend them."
"Silly twat, believing it matters a whit. Life it is a one-way
street, would you not say? Rant and rave all you want, nothing
stops the relentless inexorable march into nothingness."
"You're always coming up with ways of being less than what
you are."
"Less is more of nothing."
"You can't take refuge in your soul because you can't find it.
Some people get off on escaping their nothingness through porn.
But you, Al, escape into madness. I'm getting your point, though.
You're nothing in this setup. Nothing but an obsessive-compulsive
twitch of the Spider. Who's been coaching you?"
"You, you want answers, my sweet? Make them up like
everyone else does, yes? Make them up the way you make believe
that the gods they do not lie."
"And may the truth rest in eternal peace," Lulie interjects.
"The gods they do not give reasons for anything," Al says,
"because there is no reason for anything."
"Ah, but there's an excuse for everything," I say.
"And you, you create a god for every excuse," he says.
"No I don't, but so what if I did? At least I don't incur my own
disapproval then blame the gods like you do." Flipping hell, the
thought of killing him is too palpable. I take a couple long, slow
breaths. Not that it does much good. There's something incredibly
exasperating and unsatisfying about knowing that killing him would
be an unnecessary duplication. "You know, Al, you have the most
modern and fashionable of diseases. No matter what you do, where
you go or how much stuff you accumulate in that body of yours,
you're always bored. Bored silly, bored out of your mind."
He smiles like I hit the nail on the head, but what he's really
hearing is me racking up nails in his coffin.

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"Wanna be seduced, huh, Almit?" I go on. "Well, tough shit.


You're always in the throes of ennui. The only thing you can really
feel is the mindless terror of boredom. Even death doesn't do it for
you. Hell no, to you death is life's little treasure, your scrumptious
reward for enduring life. That's what all this is about with you, isn't
it? You and Dan'll do anything to avoid boredom." He shrugs with
what's left of his eyebrows. "You never, and I do mean never, think
about anyone or anything but yourself. And you can't figure out why
you're always bored?! You need something else to think about." I
kick him in the stomach. "Now answer my question about trying to
roast me in Mother Goose's factory of lullabies to kill by."
Between groans, he tells me to piss off.
"He's not answering because he thinks you haven't got the
guts to waste him," Lulie says.
"No, that's not the reason why he-who-is-about-to-die does
not salute me," I say. "I was chosen to be fed to the Spider because
I'll fight. Good ol' sport here and his fellow arachnid assemblage
have been looking forward to the spectacle. Al's not answering
because he thinks I have the answers. All 10 thousand of them."
"And do you?" she asks.
"Yes. Well, enough to know that I was supposed to fry in that
inferno because they've duplicated the cards I'm holding, making
me doubly expendable."
I pause.
I only said that to test Al's reaction. He looks bored. But
Lulie's ears are flapping. I was led to the house, and the house was
set to blow. Perfectly logical, but it doesn't make sense, because
I'm their house of cards. They should have cleaned house first.
Stripped me down to nothing but the memory of the cards. So why
didn't they? Right from the start Dan, Nevar and the rest of them
have been acting with paranoid desperation like they know they're
being watched. Not just watched, but violated by a surreptitious
penetration into their bowels. Until I gummed up the works at their
factory, all they had to do with little ol' erasable me in the picture
was let me leave for Europe then cut off my head, and the Hydra
would spring to life in multiples. But like I've been starring in some
fruking B-movie, everything that's happened since I went to the
mountains has plan-B written all over it. What else but desperation
would induce them to paint me into the picture as the transportable,
disposable embodiment of 10 thousand rapacious appetites?
Because it means the flow of torturous, murderous, highly profitable
sounds and images is being blocked at the source. As if someone,
who's watching them from the inside, has been rewiring their nerve
center, making the Spider lose control of its legs.
But who has control of the web?
Someone.

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Clever, catchy word someone. It covers all the bases without


separating the one from the some.
The Spider's someone who knows he's being ensnared from
the inside. Someone who's willing to risk death by coming out into
the open to snatch me, because as long as I'm alive, I'm taking the
virtual out of his reality. Yet I can't shake the niggling feeling that
he's already caught me. That I'm a loose bullet being propelled
along a silk thread by a Spider waiting to welcome me because he's
eager to feed me to the police with my pockets full of suspects. Like
Lulie says, he doesn't think I have what it takes to sever the thread
or demolish his web. He thinks he can avoid being caught in his
own creation, because he has more than two eyes and spins
bridges and parachutes to take him away with the wind.
"When I meet with the maker of this hell we're in, two of us
will be holding the same hand. Two atoms touching in the night," I
say like the afterthought that it is.
"I don't follow you," Lulie says. "What cards? What Adams?"
"Atoms! You silly sperm-sucker!" Al says, his voice rough
and scratchy from trying to cough his guts out to make more room
for air. "Two things they cannot occupy the same space at the
same time, yes?"
Lulie brakes, and I whiplash into the back of the passenger
seat. Her seat swings back, pinning Al's legs under it. He writhes
and yelps. "Where are those eyes? This sperm-sucker is going to
cork that prick."
Pushing myself between her and Al, I say, "Later. Drive,
Lulie." Her desire for the corks retreats because she knows she's
going to have to fight me to get them. She gets back into the
driver's seat. Almit gives me a derisive look devoid of gratitude.
I eye the two plugs on the floor. I've never had the desire to
get close enough to see the face of any spider. But those eyes
rolling in the floor are morphing the face of the Spider into an image
that I can't fathom. Or won't accept? Minutes roll away with the van.
In the hum of the motor is a creeping silence. The icy rain has
stopped pelting the van. Suddenly, it jolts to the left. I grab the back
of the passenger seat to keep from sucking face with Al, and I
glance out the windshield. "Where the hell are we, Lulie?"
"See for yourself," she says. "Scuzzy will fly away if we keep
pumping his ears."
Looking, I see that we're in an industrial park.
"Watch yourself now," she adds. "The twisties bite back from
here on."
I brace my feet against Al's thighs and turn my attention to
the computer screen. "Well, Alma, are we going to see any pictures
of you and your pretty family having rip-roaring sex together?" I ask.
Now that he's ungagged, he uses his freedom to remain silent. "He

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showed me pictures of his wife and two kids that were morphs of
himself. Each and everyone of them. Right, my onanistic champ?"
Lulie roars with laugher. "Did Mommy slap poor Scuzzy's
wittle hands when he played with his wee-wee?"
"She's right, Almit," I say. "You act like you're eternally
pissed off with Alma because you can't escape her. And not a
mirror in sight. But what are you going to do with her now that she's
flowered into willful slavery? Aha, what do we have here?" The
street outside Al's place pops up on the computer screen then
vanishes.
I click Back and look at Kirkewood Place again. By the
angle, I'd say this was taken by the camera looking out the oculus
window in Al's attic. Before the street blanks out again, something
shiny in the driver's window of a grey sedan pops up then
disappears. I backup, freeze and zoom in on the window. Damn,
the van's loosening my eyeballs from their sockets so I can't see
straight, and the cars on the screen look like they're trying to hold
their own in an earthquake. Whoa! It's the top of someone's head.
The sedan's too decrepit for a ghost car. Must be one of Nevar's
goons doing surveillance. Not of the house, but of me.
Darien?
"Know what ya mean, Tamas. Köszönöm," Lulie says out the
window. She makes a sharp turn then kills the engine. "It's the end
of the line for you, Scuzzball. We're gonna leave you in Tamas'
hands. Now don't you go fretting none, he won't spare any pain in
taking care of you."
"Here, Alma," I say, taking the card out of the reader. "You
like to feast on the souls of your victims. Eat this." I shove it into his
mouth.
While he gags on it, I slide open the door. A Rottweiler sniffs
me like he's tired of waiting for breakfast. Lulie gives him her arm to
chew on, roughhousing with him like his growling is canned and his
teeth are made of cloth. "How's my baby-waby?" she coos. I step
aside, and his nose twitches at the scent of Al. We're in a metal
scrapyard. The rain-soaked ground smells rusted. Lulie's making a
point by dropping us in this profanely unkempt yet
business-as-usual graveyard, but Orvin's fast friend can shoot
down any point she tries to make.
Looking through the darkness at the ungodly hulks looming
around us, I say, "Cute. Everything to stock a nightmare, but no
Duke."
"It's here," Lulie says. "First I want to say--"
"I don't have time for anymore of your cock and bull."
"Tough. I've got the Duke. Anyhoos, just want to say that
when you're not an irascible shit, you're all right. You're no armchair
warrior, hiding behind the courage of others. No sirree, you get right

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in there and defend what you believe is right. Even if it is shit. That
makes you dangerous, of course." Seeing me getting restless she
adds quickly, "What I'm trying to say is that I'm just going to have to
trust that you know what the hell you're doing."
"It's no skin off my butt if you don't trust me, Lulie. Where's
the Duke?"
She laughs like I said something funny. "The circus is in full
swing at your place. And guess who their star performer is?" With
the Rottweiler sitting on guard on top of Almit, I reach carefully into
the van and retrieve the flashlight from my bag, keeping my right
hand in touch with Orvin's friend. "How'd you propose to get past
them all without being noticed?"
"Why do you want to know?" I ask. "What's your stake in
this?"
"Verlaine and Sacher-Masoch."
"What? Are you an investigator for some law firm or
insurance company?"
She throws her head back and guffaws. Then just as quickly
starts scowling again. "Just want to see you survive, that's all, hon.
Got a problem with that?"
"Survive what? How would you know what's coming down
unless you've been shoveling it?"
"You're taking a seriously wrong turn there, hon."
"Wrong?! I'll tell you what's wrong with this picture. I'm still
hanging loose on the streets. They haven't sent anyone to snatch
me. Have they, Lulie? Because you've already got me."
"Don't come unglued on me now, Rane. You're the cops'
honey jar. The smoke from the house sent signals to the goons not
to look for an unused needle in a stack of junkies. Hear what I'm
saying?" She sticks two fingers in her mouth and whistles.
I scan the yard with the flashlight but don't see anything that
isn't rusted.
"You're good, I'll give you that," she continues. "But you can't
tell the difference between the clowns, freaks, knife throwers or
sharpshooters. Face it, Lone Wolf, you need me for a diversion. Or
else, when you walk into that arena, you'll be twittering around the
valley of death before you can pick out the good guys from the
bad."
I swing around abruptly at the sound of movement behind
me, and with the flashlight, I see a man with long, dark, curly hair
cascading down onto his brown coveralls. He's opening an
overhead door. As the door rolls up, I see the Duke parked inside a
truck. I turn slightly and step back to keep both him and Lulie in
view.
"Why don't you just wave 'em on over?" Lulie says with a
hiss in her sarcasm.

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A helicopter is circling the western sky. Any closer to my


place, and it'll be a roof ornament on the Doré.
I kill the light and say, "Shit, that's just what me and the
world need: cowboys in the sky."
"Show her what you got, Tamas," Lulie says, shoving past
me to take the Duke. "But watch yourself. She's a surly bugger."
He gives me a smile that opens up his whole face and
squeezes his eyes shut. Why waste it on a surly bugger? He walks
forward and tosses something to me. His smile keeps going as I let
the black thing fall. It's going to take more than a widget to get me
to forsake Orvin's friend.
I stare at a hunk of black metal sinking into the mud. My
hand releases the Luger and shoots up to my throat. The excitable
part of a bomb rigged to fast-track me and the Duke to Al's
inexorable nothingness beyond the stars?!
"Don't like your own handiwork?" she says.
I throw her a sharp look. "You think I rigged the Duke to blow
you up?"
"Simmer down, hon. Who said anything about a bomb?" she
says, trying not to show how amused she is at my growing
confusion and impatience.
"A tracking device?" I ask.
"Nah, it's just a piece of scrap metal. Now, anyway. But it
was carrying valuable cargo. Me and the Duke go way back. My
butt knows the saddle well enough to feel when he's not being true.
Some jackass replaced the saddle cover. To bury this." She points
to the mud, and Tamas reaches inside his coveralls and pulls out a
memory card.
Oh hell.
Not more bankrupt mindless dreamers?
"Camcorder?" I ask. He nods. "Seen what's in it?"
He keeps nodding and looks at me like he's smiling inside
but he's too timid to show it. "I was only thinking of…of helping out
Lulie here…." He lowers his gaze, and his husky voice drops with it.
Shoot to hell, I don't have to guess what's on the card, I can see it
in his face.
Lulie watches the two of us with growing interest. She points
at me and says to him, "She's the babe you told me was making
out with the stud?!" And she doesn't need anyone to answer
because she can see the answer on his face and mine. "This I gotta
see." She hee-haws and looks up at the helicopter still circling in
the sky, but ever closer to us. "Make it snappy. We gotta get the
van under cover, or the cowboys are gonna get one terrific view of
your sweet ass, hon." She laughs at the dirty look I give her.
We huddle around the open door of the van, our feet making
an arc in the mud, and we gape at the computer screen on the

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floor. I wince and cringe at the sight of me wearing nothing but


someone else's face, having sex on my exercise bike with a
monster in Fitz's body and another man's head. Watching the
closeups of the face attached to my body, I feel like I'm breathing
daggers. In and out. She looks vacuous like all her brains have
escaped out of her head through her hair follicles. Her thick blond
hair is the only thing above the neck that looks even remotely alive.
She's--have I seen her before? Yeah, like the last time I saw a pair
of fake tits posing as a sub-Neanderthal species of humanoid on
the cover of a men's magazine.
"That's not you," Lulie says, and laughs like she's forcing
herself. "And that's definitely not--that's not him. Is it?"
Tamas avoids her questioning eyes, but throws me a
knowing look before he reaches over to the Rottweiler to stop it
chewing on Al's rug. The dog obeys, then sniffs Al's face. In one
lick, Al's eyebrows disappear completely.
The scene on the video changes to my bathroom. This time
I'm in my own skin. Now it's so hot I can't bear to be inside it. Her
gaze riveted to the screen, Lulie lets fly an expletive of surprise.
"Curtains," I say, slamming the notebook shut.
I've been hoping--well, no, ever since I found the card hidden
in the ceiling fan hole, I've been expecting to find a card with myself
on it. I also expected to be able to watch the contents with a clear
conscience. Why the hell not? In the video, I'm only doing what
billions of people do everyday as a normal part of life, but my
conscience clearly can't take the shame of being hideously
unknowing. What good is a conscience to a madly enthusiastic
unwitting porn star? Kenny said that he saw me on Nevar's TV, so
the camera's been rolling how long? There must be enough prints
by now to wallpaper the pleasure thrones of every frukhead in the
world.
I've known all along that Nevar's a lying shit, but a hardcore
dream merchant?
And just how do the memory cards fit into this? It would help
if I knew what kind of hand they dealt me. But in one way, at least,
the cards add up to more than a murderous exercise in futility.
Because I've been starring in the dirty thoughts of shitterbrains,
which means that every card has led me to a hot spot set up to
start recording as soon as I came onto the scene. Their whole filthy
world has been my stage. And I kept thinking I was lost. Hell, it's
impossible to get lost in a world like that, because it's so small only
one thought can fit into it.
Lulie, Stanley and Orvin have all had the Duke to
themselves since the camera shot this garbage. But she's the only
one who knows bikes well enough to dick around with them without
harming anything. Or is she?

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"Tamas, are there any scenes of me in the bedroom?" I ask,


shoving the notebook back into my bag.
"No," he says. So Nevar kept himself out of the line of fire.
"You're kicking the oomph out of paper in the last part." I don't say
anything. He gets fidgety as I strip him with my eyes, layer by layer.
Keeping my gaze on him, I say, "Okay, Lulie, get the truck
rolling up. And you, Tamas. Start stripping."

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CHAPTER 26

"Lawdy, lawdy, the look on his face when you told him to strip!"
Lulie says as she steers the truck with the headlights off, into an
alley three blocks from the Doré. "Never seen a guy shrink down to
nothing so fast." She mocks me with an exaggerated leer that
makes Tamas' cap and baggy coveralls I'm wearing feel too tight.
"But, hon, you're gonna have to grow some long lovely locks to
match his if you wanna get my heart a strummin'."
I tell her to shut up by opening the passenger door while the
truck is still moving. "Remember, you and the Duke bomb down the
street in front of the Doré then swing around to the back. Rile them
up and get them rocking." My boots scrape the ground as the truck
stops.
"You forgot to tell me again how long from now I should get
the Duke all hot 'n bothered."
"Twenty minutes from now," she chimes along with me. She
furrows her forehead in imitation of mine. "And don't let 'em catch
ya," she says, a split second before I do.

Running towards what feels like my doom, I watch the truck


pull away then turn onto the street. I rapidly breathe in the
rain-washed air, misty from a dammed heaven slowing down the
dawn. My spirits, cold, heavy and restless, sink with the air. My dire
fate is how many breaths away? And Fitz's? His fate lies up ahead,
too. Yet I still don't have a clue how he ties into this.
Friend? Absolutely.
Lover? Oh yes.
Hostage? Yes.
False friend? No way.
Headless lover? Yes.
Willing hostage, heartless lover and lying shit? Uh….
The fact is, he knew I was going to the mountains, and he
knows Dan. And Lulie. So what? Opportunity doesn't equal motive,
and knowledge doesn't equal intent. Not necessarily, anyway. But
he hasn't been straight with me. For one thing, he lied about the
sneeze in Chanlee's message. Because he was trying to find out
what it meant? What an insipid, sloppy lie from a man I admire for
his clarity of mind. A man who's envied with suspicion by friend and
foe alike for his ability to get what he wants. His conscience places
limits on his greed, this I know without doubt. But I wouldn't put it

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past him to refuse to answer my father's calls about decoding the


memory card, if his goal all along has been to get rid of the cards
by foisting them on me. Ah, none of my suspicions add up to the
Spider. What would be the point of letting me catch him with that
tittering leather job on his bike? Unless he was trying to set up an
alibi.
Oh shit!
The woman romping around in my body in the video! The
face isn't quite right--the eyes aren't wide enough apart and the
neck is too thin, but the silky blond hair matches and the come
hither insolence is dead on. The bastards defiled my body by
erasing my head and replacing it with hers in the fruking close-ups.
On the video. That's me all right, a two-headed, brainless porn star.
Fitz, Fitz, Fitz, I'm going to knock your block off. And he
knows it. No wonder he set himself up as a fake hostage. But if he's
been in on all this from before the beginning, where does that leave
Nevar? The fact is…I hate facts. The obstinate beasts sully my
cherished beliefs. No! I won't give into my doubts. I know Nevar's a
predatory crawler, I can feel his fangs gnawing at my bones. Oh
hell, the dynamics of all this have changed so much since I told him
I'm ready to negotiate, that I'm not sure anymore which way the
facts turn this merry-go-round. Is it Nevar to Dan to Fitz to Lulie to
me? Or Fitz to Lulie to Dan to me to Nevar? It's crucial I get the
order right, because the Spider is at the nexus making the world
spin.
Maybe my ego is just making a wish, but I'm certain that Fitz
isn't the I at the center of the storm. Everyone knows how much he
loves money and cars, but the fact is, I know something about him
that no one else in the whole world knows as well as I do: I know
how much he loves me. He's told me an annoying number of times
that he gets enough money but too little of me. So if the Spider
enticed him into his web, it wasn't with money. I also know Fitz'd
never put his heart into being anyone's appendage. However he's
mixed up in this, he's the loose screw the whole works hinges upon.
This ungodly Spider. His poison is making me afraid of
everything good and decent in my life.
Where does that leave me? At the end of an alley.
I hold back in the shadows to let a car pass by on the street,
then I dash across and splash through a puddle at the entrance of
the next alley. A Chinese lantern cast on the surface of the puddle
by a streetlight settles back into place, but a dog disturbed by the
noise, starts barking.
I dodge to the right to avoid the next puddle.
All of a sudden, someone's powerful forearm is across my
throat, choking me, and I'm jerked sharply backwards. First I
struggle to breathe, then to stay conscious.

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"Beddy-bye, Bambi," Maldoon breathes heavily into my ear.


Death slithers down my throat into my lungs as a splashing
noise behind us sounds the arrival of another of Nevar's goons.
"Release her!" an unfamiliar male voice says.
The instant Maldoon's forearm eases the pressure on my
throat, an electric pain shoots out of my shoulder into my neck. He's
been twisting my arm. And he's still holding on so tightly the pain is
blinding me. I heave and gasp in his brutal embrace.
"Now step back," the voice says, rather quietly considering
how menacing he sounds.
Maldoon pushes me away after he gives my arm an extra
tug. I go down instead of forward because without his support my
knees give way. The Watcher catches me before my body turns to
mud.
"Got 'er," Maldoon shouts over my head to two more goons
closing in on me.
"Well, well, if it isn't Bambi," Nevar says, emerging from the
shadows. His face still in shadow, all I really see are the flaps of his
black overcoat flaring out in the wind.
The Watcher pushes me towards Nevar like a cat gifting its
owner with a mouse.
"Fuck you, Nevar!" I spit.
"Watch your mouth!" Maldoon yells, whopping the back of
my head. I keep myself from acknowledging him or rubbing my
smarting head. Instead, I scan the six foot high slat fence beside
me on my right. My best bet for escape.
The Watcher grabs my arm. "Twist it, why don't you,
asshole?" I say.
"Let her go," Nevar says, and assembled part that he is, the
Watcher obeys. "She understands why we're here. Don't you,
Bambi?"
While he waits for my answer, I refuse to look at him. I
double over, slide my hands down onto my thighs, take a deep
breath to concentrate my energy then give my answer to Maldoon
with a dropdead back kick. He takes the hit in the chest, the one
place my conscience tells me I'm not allowed to target, but my will
to survive tells me I have to. He keels over.
While they scramble to see if I've killed him, I vault over the
fence.
"That's understanding for you," I hear the Watcher say
amidst the din.
Racing through the backyard guarded by an army of trolls
and flamingos, I glance over my shoulder. Fruk! Nevar's scaling the
fence. Around the side of the house, I jump the fence into the
neighbor's yard and hightail it to the street. My lungs burn like I'm
swallowing ignited Molotov cocktails. Nevar races after me in

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silence, the sound of his footsteps fleeing with the wind. Truly a
shadow worth its weight in gold. I turn abruptly and face him with
the Luger pointing at him dead on.
He stops running but keeps moving towards me. "This is
how you negotiate? With bullets?" He's close enough to grab the
gun.
"Beats your lies."
He knows he can't outrun a bullet, but he thinks he can
outtalk Orvin's shaky little friend. He's got some of it right. There's a
part of me faster than a bullet, and I've already pulled the trigger in
my head. If he comes any closer, he'll be racing the bullet to the
other side of hell.
I shrink behind him to stay out of view of an oncoming car. It
slows down. Shit, not more cops?! Nevar glances back at the car
then passes me a relieved look that matches the surrealism of
seeing a Studebaker pulling to a stop beside us. Orvin, still wearing
the paint-splattered cap, reaches over and opens the back door. I
step behind Nevar to urge him into the car with the gun, but he
makes the gun useless by lunging for the car.
Orvin looks anxiously in the rearview at a car turning onto
the street. "Better make it quick!" he says as Nevar slides over to
the far side in the Stude. I relieve Orvin's anxiety and increase my
own by climbing into the car, filled with the scent of geraniums. I
stare through the geraniums keeping the peace between me and
Nevar. The two people in the passing car don't notice us. They're
too busy smacking each other. Orvin turns around, gives Nevar the
once over with his eyes then gives me a look part knowing, part
questioning. "This here yer fella?" he asks.
"This dung heap?" I say.
"Might a known you'd free 'im just so as ya could fight with
'im," Orvin says with a cockeyed smile that vanishes at the sight of
Nevar and I glaring at him. He rubs his whiskers. "Smoley hokes if I
haven't been circling round these here streets hoping ta run into ya.
If ya got any ideas 'bout getting to yer apartment, scrap 'em. Looks
like pretty derned near every cop in the city is practicing maneuvers
on…."
He lets his words die in his throat because I put a finger to
my lips to warn him to shut up, then I point straight ahead to tell him
to keep going in the opposite direction of the Doré. He sees his little
friend on my lap and gets the Stude rolling. I keep my back to the
door, while Nevar makes himself comfortable by unbuttoning his
overcoat.
"She's a real beauty," Nevar says like he's waiting to be
served another drink.
"Got a good eye there, son. I'll give ya that," Orvin says.
"A Champion?" Nevar asks.

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Suddenly sitting taller, Orvin beams and nods.


"A '56?"
"Close," Orvin says, his voice swelling with pride. "A
yella-bellied '55."
"You wired?" I ask Nevar abruptly.
"Like you wouldn't believe," he replies. He smiles and holds
his arms up and back like he expects me to go down on him. "Go
ahead, frisk me."
Suddenly, Kenny's face pops up over the back of the
passenger seat. Orvin's little friend automatically shrinks back
under my coveralls. "Uncle Stefan?!" he says like he's confirming
his own worst suspicions.
Nevar and I jolt then exchange accusing glances. Our
stunned silence explodes with Kenny shouting over Nevar and
Orvin trying to shout over me. I glean enough from the fracas to
figure out that while the conflagration was still raging Kenny heard a
cop give an order to have me picked up at the Doré, so he sneaked
away to warn me. As for Orvin….I'll have to stop yelling. Uh…right.
He drove away with the help of the cops because they told him to
move his car.
"The cops!" I holler. Everyone but me shuts up and ducks. In
the seconds it takes them to figure out I was crying wolf, I manage
to get in, "Kenny! He's wired. The cops are hearing everything
you're saying. Frisk him!"
Kenny hesitates, mumbling something to himself, his eyes
swinging from me to his uncle. Eventually, he reaches for the
geraniums, puts them in the front then dives into the back seat and
frisks his uncle like a pro. Nevar's protests would be a lot more
convincing if he'd stop snickering. But he doesn't have any
incentive to stop. With Kenny between us, the Luger is just so much
useless metal.
"Where'd you get the jeans and other clothes you're wearing,
Kenny?" I ask, shedding the coveralls to give my intentions room to
maneuver.
"Orvin," he replies.
"The neighbor," Orvin says with a shrug and a smile.
Some smile. Women can see it in the dark a mile away.
"Don't, Kenny, that's my cell," Nevar complains.
"Go ahead, Kenny," I say. "I need it." He yanks it out of
Nevar's breast pocket and tosses it to me. Nevar's compliance is
giving me the willies.
I give Lulie a buzz.
"Don't do anything until I call back," I say to her.
"Geez, hon, I'm absolutely lousy at doing nothing," she says.
"What kinda trouble you gone and--" I shut down the phone.
"No bugs," Kenny says. "Think he's got 'em in his shoes?"

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"No, that's where his brains are," I say. "Do you ever tell the
truth about anything, Nevar?"
"There's more 'n one way a being wired," Orvin says.
"Orvin, you never mind," I say, trying to sound cross, but
succeeding only in feeling foolish. "Concentrate on the road."
Now that the fun's over, Kenny looks at me like someone's
going to tear a strip off him.
"Okay, Kenny," I say, trying to reassure him with a soft
touch. "Time to tell us why you don't want to go home." He glances
at Nevar, and like a contagion, his guilt spreads over Nevar's face.
"Kenny, have you--are you--"
Nevar interrupts, "You think I'm one of your suspec--"
"Like hell I do!" I say. "I know you're the Spid--"
"Tell her! Tell Rane the truth!" Kenny says to Nevar.
"I'd rather hear it from you, Kenny," I say.
Kenny looks at me like I asked him to pull out his own teeth.
Then he lowers his gaze and says barely above a whisper, "Okay."
The three of us shift around like the seat is catching fire.
"When I said that…that I saw you on TV at Uncle Stefan's,"
Kenny says, keeping his gaze down and fidgeting with his jacket
zipper. "I really did. Excepting he got the copy from me."
Fruk, I don't believe it. Kenny's one of the 10 thousand
suspects?! He shifts his gaze to Nevar, and Nevar's face floods
with Kenny's anguish. Together, they lay to rest my disbelief.
"You used your parents' credit cards?" I ask. He shakes his
head, and Nevar concurs with his eyes.
"Tyler's dad has all kinds of girlie stuff," Kenny says. "We
used one of his credit card numbers, and he never even knew we'd
done it. By now on account of it Mom and Dad have snooped
through my email and stuff, and they're gonna string me up by
the--"
Nevar and I start speaking at once, but he cedes to me.
"Kenny, you're not giving them any credit for having brains. They
have a pretty good idea what you've been through, and my guess is
that they're madder 'n hell at the people who did it to you. I know I
am." I look at Nevar, but my glare is tempered by the crazy notion
that I'm looking at a victim of Kenny's prurient curiosity. Could it be
true that he got into this by covering for Kenny? "Do you really think
your parents haven't figured out that you learned a lot of heavy-duty
stuff from your ordeal? Enough to keep you from getting tangled up
in anything like this again?"
Kenny keeps his eyes down, but his fidgeting stops. "Yeah, I
learned some totally weird stuff. Like in the mags and flics and stuff,
none of the girls are really for real. You're majorly better in person."
He looks up and his smile meets mine.

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Hell, what am I smiling at? Does he mean that now he's


going to peep through bedroom windows, sneak into strip joints and
entice little girls to act out his fantasies? I'm not sure I want to
know. I glance over at Nevar. His face mirrors mine with his
eyebrows crowding his hairline. No doubt about it, he's been
covering for Kenny.
"Don't take many brains to figure that out, lad," Orvin says,
catching Kenny's eye in the rearview. "Ya don't learn ta have
respect for yerself 'n others, the closest yer ever gonna git ta the
real ones is them there flics and other garbage. Personally, I ain't
got no taste for garbage. Or the stomach fer it, come ta think of it."
Kenny squeezes his eyes shut and throws back his head like
all three of us struck him. Nevar already has an arm around Kenny,
but I slide my arm above his and give Kenny a shoulder hug that he
doesn't cozy up to.
"We all have those thoughts, Kenny," I say. "It's what we do
about them that shows what we're really made of. And your parents
know it. I'll eat Orvin's hat if they give you any heck." His eyes open
to my smile, and he looks at me hopefully. Nevar gives the hat a
thoughtful look. "No one's mad at you. Your uncle's right here, and
he's not--"
"That's 'cause he thinks you're cool. Real hot," Kenny says
with unthinking certainty.
Nevar stares out the window.
"Tell you what, Kenny," I say, catching Nevar's smirk
reflected in the window. "Orvin's going to get you to one of
Chanlee's best buddies on the force. You talk to him, and he'll talk
to your parents." He nods without enthusiasm. He's only eleven, yet
he looks so defeated by life. The Spider's venom has paralyzed his
soul so he can't feel the love that has nourished him. I signal Nevar
with my eyes to agree, but he's back to sharing Kenny's expression.
This time I detect a difference, however. Kenny's gloom and
resistance are rooted in shame. Nevar's is rooted in what looks
like fear. Of what, though? Of losing his prey? One thing is clear:
He doesn't trust me. Tough. That's the way it's always been with us,
bound together by mutual distrust.
I tap in Levi's number.
"Rane, you rotten desperado!" Levi says. "Chanlee's frantic
to talk to you."
"Who isn't?" I say. "Where the hell is she, anyway?"
"At your pad," he says.
"Tell her to get her butt over to her place. Kenny's--"
"The abducted boy?!"
"--going to meet you and her there."
"You shitting me?"

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Nevar waves to get my attention. I shove the phone at him.


He listens to Levi calling me names, then says, "Bangston, no
cock-ups this time….It's Stefan Nevar…." When he's done, I motion
him to give the phone to Orvin. He does in his own sweet time.
The phone buzzes and Orvin hands it back to me. I answer it
and pass it back to Nevar, saying, "Your sister."
He nods.
Kenny shakes his head, and his whole body starts vibrating.
"Hello, Sheri," Nevar says, "I have someone with me who'd
like to--" She blasts him so loudly, I feel like I'm getting a dose of
shrapnel in my ears. "I didn't tell you because--"
"Hollicats! She don't need no phone," Orvin says as Nevar
tries to get in a word between blasts. "That ain't no wind blowing
outside. It's her."
"Would you have preferred to know he was still alive? Then
be--" Nevar manages to say. "Then be told he was….I've only
known for certain in the last few minutes….The police have known
for about an hou--Didn't they notify you?"
"I told 'em I was Tyler," Kenny says. And while Nevar and
the rest of us stare at him in surprise, he grabs the phone. "Mom?!"
He starts to cry. "Don't cry, Mom…."
Nevar reaches over and touches my hand. A simple gesture,
a hand touch. But in this case, confusing as hell.
"Mom…MOM! Tell Jenna to stop blabbering! I wanna hear
what…."
While Kenny's soul awakens, I say to Nevar, "So far, I'm the
only one who's been doing any negotiating. Start talking, Nevar."
"Maldoon's--"
"No more subterfuge. Where's Fitz?"
He looks taken aback. "You don't know?!" He searches my
face for the answer. "Of course you don't. That explains why you--"
"Will you guys cool it?" Kenny says, his hand over the
phone. "I can't hear what Dad's saying he bought me." Without
consulting each other, Nevar and I lift Kenny into the front seat.
"Where is Fitz?" I say fast and furiously. "If you've killed him
you bastard--" I choke on my thoughts. "What have you done with
him?" I hardly recognize my voice, it's so hoarse.
"He died in the house Faule--" Nevar starts to say.
"You murdering liar! I would have found--" My throat
tightens, making it difficult to breathe. And I'm afraid that if I breathe
out, I'll throw up. I don't trust what I'm seeing on Nevar's face, but
there's something about the way Orvin's looking at me that's
making my heart feel like it's slicing through my ribs.

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CHAPTER 27

"They found the remains of two people," Nevar says. "All the police
have been accounted for, including the brave unfortunate soul who
never managed to escape on time. That leaves one of Dan's boys
or one of his victims."
"What do you hope to gain with these lies?" I ask. My back
stiffens and prickles like some fruking devil is playing a concerto on
my spine with burning knives.
Orvin clears his throat. "He's telling it straight as an arrow
there, Rane. Heard on this here radio myself that at least two
people got done fer in the explosion. It sure as tootin' makes
sense--"
"No it doesn't," I say.
"--that the maggots would round 'em up in one corral. And
you was wondering yourself why the place didn't blow sky-high as
soon as the lights came on…."
He keeps talking, while I meld into the painful truth.
They must have had Fitz bound and gagged behind one of
the walls, in the bedroom ensuite, maybe. I was going to search
there. I was going to…What difference does any of that make now?
Who was it who said that only good things can be abused? As if it
matters. He's…he was better than good. He was there all the while,
listening to every sound we made. With the hope that we wouldn't
make the wrong move? While I was--He never made a sound. Not
that I heard. Maybe I would have heard him if I'd been paying more
attention instead of…But no one else heard him, either. Because
he was already dead? No. It wasn't the fuse box that was rigged to
blow. The cop who flicked the switch in the power box opened one
door too many, because the one leading to Fitz's coffin was rigged
to blow when someone opened it. Fitz kept quiet to keep us from
opening the door. Without grandstanding or any other ego-driven
bullshit, he saved us all.
Before and after all the evil the universe has and will ever
know, his will never be a captive soul.
Everything collapses into my soul, stilling my heart while the
horror rages on.
"You would'a done the same," Orvin says.
"What?" I say, my voice sounding like I left it behind with
Fitz. I blink Orvin, Nevar and Kenny back into focus. All three of
them are staring at me like I'm wearing my face inside out. Guess I

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was talking out loud. We've all been brought to a standstill by more
than the Stude.
Kenny offers me the phone. I take it, shove it into my jacket
and blow on my icy hands. "Kenny, the voices you heard when you
were trapped in the house--"
"Uh-huh," he says, his face muscles tightening.
"--Think you would recognize them if--"
"Uh-huh." He nods vigorously.
"What were they talking about?" Nevar asks.
"I don't remember," Kenny says, getting fidgety again. Nevar
slides forward and clasps Kenny's shoulders. "What were they
talking about?"
"He said he doesn't remember," I say, pushing him away
from Kenny. "Leave him alone!"
"Yeah," Kenny says, making it sound more like nah. "Leave
me alone."
Nevar tries to shrug me off and clips my chin with his elbow.
It dammed well hurts because I bite my tongue. He makes a
whining noise like he's the one sucking up the pain.
"Look at me, Kenny," Nevar says softly but sharply.
The boy obeys. "They were just talking about weird stuff," he
says quickly. "Guess what? My dad just bo--"
"You can do better than that," Nevar says, holding Kenny's
gaze. "Did one of them sound like he didn't want to be there?"
Kenny shrugs. "This one guy kept saying bleepity bleep,
bleep this and bleepity bleep that, and he had this weird sneeze.
Sort a like Mom's around my duvet."
I catch my breath, and it feels like I'm swallowing a sword.
Nevar turns sharply to me and says without moving his lips,
"I'm sorry." Then he slumps back into the seat. If I followed my
bliss, he'd be kissing bullets. Kenny's the only thing in the universe
keeping him alive. The air in here is so thick with unrequited evil
that I can't breathe. I open the door and gasp for air.
"Rane!" Kenny cries out. "Don't be mad at me, Rane." Tears
well in his eyes.
"I have some things I have to take care of, Kenny." I hug his
cheek, and his tears on my face whet my appetite for revenge.
"When you see me again, I'll be wearing my party hat and you can
show me what your dad bought you."
"How long you gonna be?" Kenny asks like the idea of me in
a party hat is making him want to puke.
"In time to have some cake. So save me some, okay?" I pull
away. "Hold onto this for me, will you?" He nods while I put Tamas'
cap on his head. "Keep your hat on, Kenny."
He grabs hold of my neck again and says, "Kick ass, Rane."

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Orvin leaves Nevar and I facing each other as though the


Studebaker and the rest of the universe were still between us. I
shove my hands into my jacket pockets, and the feel of the cold
Luger against my skin makes me shiver.
"Notice something strange?" I ask. He looks around and
shrugs. "Well, I do. Where are the cops, huh, Nevar? I'm their flavor
of the hour, so why aren't they crawling all over me like lice?"
"I can explain that." He takes a step towards me, but I shake
my head. He pays his respects to Orvin's ready little friend by
stopping.
"So can I. You've convinced them you can bring me in so
they can throw me like a bomb into Dan's lap."
"I haven't convinced them of a single th--"
"Shut up! I know it's your idea, not theirs, because if they
knew what they were doing, they'd be using Dan to blast the hell
out of you. But there's a slight glitch in your plan: You're not taking
me anywhere because this is the end of the road for you."
"You're standing on this road too, Rane. Haven't you
noticed?" While I'm searching for a less obvious answer to his
question, he rushes on madly, "Here you are, face to face
with…When you look at me, what do you see?" Now there's a
question that doesn't have a less obvious answer.
"As far as I can see, there's only one person left standing,
because you're dead meat. And I'm not going to like what I see until
the cavernous vacuum you tout as your heart is filled with lead."
My finger pulses on the trigger as Orvin's little friend slides
willingly out of my pocket. Such an effortless gesture, killing the
talking dead. The Luger catches the glint of headlights coming from
the direction of the Doré. Two sets of them. I dart behind a camper
on the truck parked to my right. Nevar disappears around the other
side of the camper. A cop car emerges from behind the first set of
lights. Suddenly, they veer right at me. Fruk! They've spotted me.
The front left tire of the cruiser jumps up onto the curb in the space
vacated by the Stude. Further down the road, the second car
comes to a stop, and the frozen glare of its lights commands my
attention for a split second. How many cops are there? Who gives a
shit! I bolt for the yard directly before me, but end up with my
forearms slapping against the sidewalk to keep my face from
getting a cement facelift. Nevar tripped me from behind.
An effortless gesture, taking down a prey caught in the web.
Before I can get up, he grabs my arms like they're jug
handles and yanks me up. Tightening his grip on my right arm so
his fist is punching into the small of my back, he wrenches the back
of his left wrist against my throat, forcing my head back. I fight to
keep my weight grounded, but my back arches. With my balance
gone, this sick fruk can throw me any which way he dammed well

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pleases. But why is he so eager to feed me to the police? They


know I'm not the Spider. Or do they? It's Chanlee's word against
his.
"Now you're going to listen to reason," he says with an
intensity that makes the words sound like they're being fired out of
a gun.
"Il ne faut jamais défier un fou," I say, the words vibrating
against his wrist.
"Or seduce one," he says, in a voice I hardly recognize as
his.
Holding me like I'm a fruking bow and he's the arrow, he
pushes me towards the cop car. In the cold, I break out in a sweat.
My right arm and shoulder, still too raw to be forgiving of the
bruising they took from Maldoon, make me want to cry out in pain.
It feels like my whole body is being crushed into fluid. It takes
everything I've got to stay focused on Nevar's body. How it feels
and moves against mine. How the points of contact shift and
change pressure. Somewhere in the cocksure brutality of his
movements is my chance to counterstrike.
Two doors of the cruiser open.
All of a sudden the car comes alive without moving. A
scorching pink light accompanied by a series of loud popping,
hissing noises explodes from under the car. The cops scatter, and
Nevar jumps back. His hold on me is erratic, slackening and
tightening, as he drags me back with him. Faking unconsciousness
I suddenly go limp, making him bear the full weight of my body. He
swiftly braces himself to keep us both from falling backward and
slides his choking arm down onto my chest to hold me up. The
instant the pressure eases on my throat, I come to life kicking. In
one continuous motion my left heel strikes his shin, scrapes down
hard on it and smashes down on his instep. He doesn't let go. But
his energy is concentrated in his lower extremities, leaving the rest
of him vulnerable and giving me the opportunity to drive my left
elbow back into his stomach and slice down into his groin with the
edge of my hand.
"Rane!" he croaks.
Breaking free, I run for it.
Fruk! Orvin's treacherous friend has given me the slip, and
Nevar's obsessed with staying within shooting distance of me.
"Rane!" he calls out breathlessly from too close behind me. "You
damned fool. The police have this covered."
Yeah, with all the cunningly woven lies you've been spinning
them.
I run and run until it feels like my gimped up shoulder has
dislocated itself and is ramming into my lungs. Why am I running?
He's already caught up with my thoughts, and the only place left to

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hide from the Spider is in my mind. I keep running, but all I'm doing
is picking up my feet and plunking them back down without going
anywhere. My best chance of getting out of this alive is to let him
get even closer. So close, that all twenty-four of his claws will be
within reach. The thought makes me shudder, but how else to
mangle them? My body slows down, sparing me the necessity of
making a decision. What the hell, I've been tasting his venom on
my lips right from the start.
Rubbing my shoulder, I look around without glancing back.
I'm caught between a rock and a hard to find place at the end of a
road. Backyards, those closed-in prettified repositories of partially
realized dreams, run parallel to the street on both sides. Oh hell,
daybreak. If I can call it that. The perverse sun is rejoicing with its
warm blissful light on the other side of the clouds, leaving us with a
dreary, dismal, sullen dawn that chills to the bones and beyond.
Nevar stops so close behind me, his heavy breath feels like
scopulas sweeping my neck. "Finally," he says. The fight or flight
impulse grips me with such strength, I can't stay put without
shaking. Because I don't turn around or answer him, he steps
around to face me. He has one hand in his overcoat pocket,
fondling Orvin's slutty little friend.
After a cursory look he says, "In the name of Zeus, Rane,
relax." The permanent crease across his forehead is joined by
several tension lines. "I'm not going to--"
"Says the Spider on the right side of a Luger."
For a moment, I'm taken aback by how awkward he looks
holding the gun. But then, why would he concern himself with
guns? Predacious fruks like him come ready-made with an arsenal
of deadly weapons. He's such a clever little Spider, he waits for
others to spin the web then devours their victims.
His hand slides out of the pocket, loaded with the pistol.
No point in acting compliant. He'll know I'm faking. I focus
intently on the alley entrance behind him on his left and nod subtly.
The garage shadow on the ground changes shape. Too quickly to
believe my eyes, it's right as rain again. He glances over his
shoulder, and I pivot swiftly around to his right. As I'm grabbing for
his gun hand, he shoves the pistol at me. "Here," he says. "Take it."
My plan of attack goes limp. That's how quickly his venom
works. But I'm not too stunned to let him keep the gun. I step back
and check to see if he emptied the magazine.
"It's loaded for bear," I say, puzzled.
"You're a better shot than I am."
"I see. You expect me to join the fruking feast as a hired gun.
Sure, why not? I'm game, you'll be my first cull."
"Bambi," he says then tsk, tsks. "Come now, you have no
intention of killing me. If your brain were even a fraction as quick on

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the draw or as accurate as your heart, I'd be wearing a toe tag by


now." I roll my eyes then let them settle on the garage shadow.
"Look at me, Rane." I keep my gaze peeled on the shadow, ready
this time for it to try playing tricks on my eyes. He steps between
me and my shadow. "You're not going to shoot me. You know
why?" He steps closer like Orvin no longer has a little friend. "When
you look at me, you come face-to-face with yourself. You don't
trust--"
"I knew you'd stoop to a cheap appeal for sympathy and
trust."
"Come on, admit it. You haven't come up with one
consummate knock 'em dead reason that has convinced you
beyond a reasonable doubt that I'm the master criminal your
guilt-ridden heart wants me to be. Deny them as you may, but your
feelings for me are such that you can't shoot me without killing your
heart."
The pain in my shoulder eases as my mind casts off the
onerous burden of being true to a web of lies.
He barrel-hugs me and wraps our bodies together in his
overcoat. The urge to fight takes flight, leaving me with a body that
welcomes the warmth, while my heart pounds like it's demanding to
be freed.
Disarming. Disarmed. Not exactly how to mangle a Spider.
Not even close, actually. But then, he's not the Spider. He's worse.
"The advocate rests his case," I say.
"The devil's?"
"Not entirely." His soft laughter ripples through me. "It wasn't
anything you said or did. It was something you didn't do. The
fundamental rules of self-preservation alone dictate that the Spider
would never hand an adversary a loaded weapon with the safety
catch off."
"The truth be known, I thought it was on." He pulls his head
back abruptly, matching my astonishment. "The first thing I did
when I picked it up was switch the lever." We exchange knowing
glances. "You had it on?!" I cringe to the sound of his laughter.
Part of me wants to join in his laughter because part of me,
I'm not so sure is the best part, is rejoicing that he's not the Spider.
At the same time, part of me, the part that has kept me flying by the
seat of my pants as I dodge the evil intentions of others, that part is
holding back. In judgment, yes. Or how about in just plain ordinary
garden variety sanity? But could it be in hesitation?
When he's had a bellyful of laughs, he says, "Don't look so
undone. And don't let this distract us. You know it's Dan we're
after."
"Do I?" I say, stepping back and standing akimbo. "The
Spider's--"

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"Why do you keep referring to him as The Spider?"


"Faule showed me--" His nod finishes the rest for both of us.
"The Spider's alive. I mean, really alive as in totally predacious and
lethal. Dan lacks the warmth to be truly alive."
"That's apparent, not factual. I wouldn't stake my life on--"
"You wouldn't stake your life on anything without a retainer."
He actually looks offended by that. "Okay, okay. That was a cheap
shot. He's a dumb fruk."
"By what evidence do you make that claim? From what I've
witnessed--"
"You've only seen what the Spider wants you to see. Only a
dumb fruk would think it's clever to use Dan Istenly as an alias."
"He only used that aka for your benefit. He's been operating
here under Samente."
"Yeah, and it spells dumb fruk. Because he's using it for your
benefit, not his own. He's too cretinous to figure out that by giving
him that handle, the Spider was advertising to the law enforcement
world to come and get him. I mean, if you're going to play the part
of a gladiator, you should expect to be thrown in with the lions, not
fed to them on a platter. You know how many police there are in
this town alone who know that dannosamente means evil in Italian?
I haven't had time to check out what Istenly means, but I'll bet it
spells dumb fruk in capital letters."
"It means God in Hungarian." He pauses thoughtfully then
says, "If only Lucifer were a dumb fruk." Still sounding skeptical, he
adds, "Surely you don't think Krudmin is the web master?" My
eyebrows form a question mark. "The 200 hundred pound sack of
swill you threw at me on the stairs."
"The Hiker? No. Where is he?"
"Right where he should be: Climbing the walls in a holding
cell."
"What did you learn from him?" I put Ovin's little friend to
rest. With the safety on.
"He only knows how to talk with his fists. But if he's not your
Spider, then who?"
"The woman in the red hat."
"What woman in the red hat?"
I study his face for signs that he's feigning ignorance. I see
consternation and lips parted in anticipation, but who knows what's
festering under the mask. "The woman who outran Chanlee."
The creases in his forehead iron out. "Oh," he says like the
answer is a letdown. "She wasn't wearing a red hat. She was
wearing a red coat--"
"Like hell."
Dammit all, I think he's right.
"More to the point, she's Dan."

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"Uh-uh. I've seen her and Dan together."


"Oh. Then why is he holed up in his apartment like a
cornered rat? Why not give himself up?"
"Because he's not there."
"He certainly is. We've been doing round the clock
surveillance, and--"
"We?"
"The police and--"
"So you're not just cozying up to them, you're bedding down
with them."
"Listen, Rane, I--"
"You, Maldoon, Hulladin, Chan--" He grabs me by the
shoulders and the pain causes me to catch my breath. He drops his
hands to my waist. "I'm sorry I was so rough with you back there,
but if you would let me explain, none of this would have hap--"
"Shut up and get on with it." There's something about him
that makes me want to jump him. Every which way possible. "After
being implicated in this through Kenny, I decided to go undercover
and throttle the organization from the inside. It wasn't difficult to get
in, because they believed they already had control of me through
my apparent addiction to--" He waves the rest away. "You know all
that."
"Like hell I do. Why do I bother listening to you?! The only
thing that comes out of your mouth is shitterbrain rejects. You're
trying to tell me you've been on the inside, yet you're pretending to
be a mind-swoggled ignoramus who couldn't recognize the Spider if
he were standing here."
"I haven't been pretending any such thing. I know it's Dan."
"And I know it isn't. So one of us is--"
"They kept giving me assignments that were as challenging
and time-consuming as they were odious and spurious. They had
no reason to be trusting. They had just cleaned Joseph Stampe out
of their hair by throwing him off the mountain. The truth be known,
Kenny managed to penetrate deeper into their organization than I
did. He hacked into one of their core systems and got--"
"The video--amongst other crap." The smutty look on his
face says I'm right.
"An uncut version of you with--" I wave a finger in front of his
face and shake my head. "The police were able to match your face,
which led us to Dan. Then they warned me to back off on the
grounds that I was jeopardizing their undercover operation. So I
worked out a deal with their undercover operator."
"Maldoon?"
He nods. "The pedophilia investigation against him was a
ruse to get him in solid with the organization. It might have worked
if he wasn't the Spider's plant in the force."

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"And he convinced the Spider to snatch Kenny to expose


you as a plant?"
He nods. "If you hadn't fled from the alley, you would have
witnessed him being arrested."
"So what are you doing here with me? You should have
wrung the Spider's identity out of the creep."
"I thought I knew who's behind all this. More importantly, I
suppose, I don't think Maldoon knows. They don't trust him
because they know he serves two masters."
"Yeah, he's been kissing the butt of his god's shadow. But
the Spider doesn't trust anyone. Not him or Dan. No one."
"He trusts Dan to be sure, because he is the Spider."
"You're dreaming, Snow White. Dan's such a dumb fruk he
actually believes that if he copies the Spider well enough, he'll
become one." The more I speak of Dan in this light, the darker
Nevar's eyes become. Probably because my voice is hardening
along with my conviction that the Spider we're looking for wears
many hats but only one red coat.
"There's something else making the back of my neck twitch,"
I go on. "The cards I'm holding. The Spider has been paving my
way with them, but you and the cops don't seem to care squat
about them. Which means you and the whole fruking world must
have a list of the 10 thousand suspects. Maybe they're not the
same lists, or mine have sensitive data embedded in the code, or--"
"They're odious and spurious--"
"Time-consuming shitterbrain remnants. Fruk." I punch a fist
into my palm. "I take it you didn't plant one in my bag at the
mountains?"
"No. Why would I? They're of no use to you or me."
"Right, by then you had already zeroed in on Dan," I say,
thoughtfully. "He planted it on me when I was waiting at the bus
station in Banff. Seems you had no difficulty making the connection
between him and me, which isn't all that direct, considering I never
really knew him all that well."
"No, because--"
"Yet you couldn't make the right connection between me and
Faule even though you had your spook covering his place."
"At first I thought you and Faule were holding Kenny there,
but then they distracted me--"
"By leading you to believe they were holding him up in the
mountains."
"Precisely. Then when they killed him…when they killed that
boy…."
"Kenny's going to freak when he finds out another boy died
in his place." He holds his gaze on me. I understand the whole

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panoply of emotions displayed on his face, because when it comes


to Kenny, our hearts touch base.
"Like I did when I learned they had killed him. I knew you
were next." The dismay in his voice increases with each word, like
he still expects it to happen. The shadow of fear crosses his face,
darkening my thoughts and making my heart skip.
"It wasn't just the safety latch cockup that's corralled your
paranoia. What finally convinced you I wasn't one of the devil's
shadows?" His phone buzzes in my jacket. "The cops?" Yes and
no. "It's Chanlee, calling from her home phone."
"Mission accomplished," Orvin says over top what sounds
like a shouting match in the background. "The lad's folks have
arrived. Guess you can figure that out fer yerself, what with the
racket 'n all. I tell ya that there lady's missed her true callin'. They
should send her on the next moon mission, and she can tell us
what's happening just by hollerin' from there."
"Chanlee around?" I ask abruptly, cutting off his chuckling.
I'm saving my smiles and chuckles for my good-bye to the Spider.
"I'll git her fer ya," Orvin says, in his soldier voice. "'Fore I do,
me and the Stude are ready for action."
"We've got company," I say to Nevar and point at the
garage. The shadow is on the move again. "Orvin, tell Chanlee I'll
get back to her in five." I hang up.
Nevar stares at the shadow making a fool of me again by
resting in peace. He turns back to me and starts to say something,
but I whiz past him, saying, "With any luck that shadow could be
wearing a red coat." My hand flies out of my jacket pocket with
Orvin's little friend hanging on for dear life.
In the alley, I stomp on the shadow, an ordinary, lackluster
nothing of a thing. I can't see anything stirring down the full length
of the alley. Nothing intrudes upon the sound of wet leaves
tumbling over gravel. Nothing but the breath of the gods blowing my
hopes and everything else helter skelter.
Nevar runs into the shadow, his thwarted expression
mirroring mine. "What do you think you saw?" he asks as I
exchange the cell for the gun in my hands. I look up, and he falls in
a heap at my feet, leaving Lulie standing before me like she's
waiting for applause.

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CHAPTER 28

The rock in Lulie's hand explains how, not why, Nevar hit the dirt.
She shrugs away the ticked off look I throw her as I drop down on
my knees to check him out. "Start praying to all the gods in your
books that he's not dead," I say with my jaw so tight it punctuates
each word with a crack. I don't think anyone should get away with
hitting him, let alone killing him. I brush a lock of hair from his
forehead. Am I that far gone?
"No need to spit any bricks. I only tapped him," she says,
tossing the rock behind her. "Just hard enough to give us time to
split." Wincing, Nevar tries soothing the back of his head with his
hand. "See?" she adds, sounding proud of herself.
"And how do you propose we do that with him tagging along
as dead weight, huh? We need him, you dope. A pair of the
Spider's eyes have been watching me from the apartment above
mine, and I need him to help me get past the cops surrou--"
"Chill. I've got the picture." She crouches down beside me
and gazes at him intently. "He kinda looks familiar. Who is he,
anyway?"
"Stefan Nevar, a--"
"Ah, thought so. The big shot mouthpiece for corporate
criminals. But when Fitz meets up with this guy, he's going to leave
another bloody signature on his face."
My body jolts at the sound of his name. She doesn't know
yet that his name is all that's left of him. And I can't tell her now,
because she'll--Who knows what she'll do? There isn't enough time
left for her to act out her own version of the sorrow and rage doing
a slash 'n burn through my heart.
Responding to my reaction, she says, "Hey, from where I
was standing, it didn't look or sound much like you two were
finkydiddling."
"Shows you how deceptive appearances can be.
Finkydiddling?"
"Having it off."
"Off or on," I mutter, helping him up. He looks like his worst
nightmare has been etched into his face. Is this what Fitz looked
like when he went down? "It seems I can't tell the difference
anymore. Come on, help me get him mobile."

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Sandwiched between Lulie and I in her truck, Nevar is with


us enough to see the light of day. But he's still too discombobulated
to protest being put through the paces while Lulie plays Florence
Nightingale.
"How's he looking?" I ask.
"Like someone's been using his face for batting practice.
Either that or someone's been mighty confused about on and off,"
she says, eyeing me like I should be ashamed of myself.
"Just give me the good news," I say, feeling ashamed in
spite of myself.
Peering into one of his eyeballs with a pocket light, she says,
"Want him to live?" I nod. "Then it's good news."
He smiles, and she tosses me a know-it-all look.
I get on the phone to Stanley.
"Will you turn down that boxing match?" I shout.
"Howd'ya expect me to hear it if I turn it down?" Stanley says
over the blow-by-blow commentary of the fight.
"I have something important I want to ask Carbone Man."
"Keeerrssst! Don't you never let your balls down?!" He turns
down the fight from ear-blasting to loud.
"Did you see or hear anyone coming or going late Saturday
night?"
"Saturday night--Grrrraaa good one!--uh, yeah. That was the
night the Great Titanium had the ref in a headlock, and I couldn't
hear the squirt squealing on account a some turd was revving a
bike out back. Right hook, man, right, right! Ahhh, serves you right,
ya dumbbell."
"Yo, Stan?! You didn't see who it was?"
"Whaddya think? No one comes between me and the Great
Titanium. It was some broad leaving."
"In the morning, you mean?"
"Nah. It was before I closed up shop for the night."
"It couldn't have been Saturday night, Stan. Believe me, I
would have heard the bike myself."
"Blood, blood, blood, more! Argg, I said more not less.
Coulda been Sunday when I was watching the repeats. Same diff."
"See anything unusual going on?"
"Nah. The cops always picnic in the trees and bushes
around here. Whaddya think?"
"I was talking about Saturday, uh, Sunday night. What did
she look like?"
"Dunno. She was wearing a helmet. And lots of ball-bustin'
brown leather. Yeowch! One more slam, and he's gonna go down.
The way the leather was stretched over her ass, it could'a been
Dan's muffin."
"Well?"

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"Well what?"
"What does she look like?"
"The few times I seen her was mostly from behind."
"Wearing a red hat or coat?"
"Aaagrrr, whew! That was a close one. No, black. And the
hat was so ugly I'd rather kiss someone's hairy--"
"Stanley!"
"--stinky--"
"I get the idea."
"--keister than look at that hat."
"Was the bike a Kawasaki?"
"Yeah. Black and beauteeeeful. Ahhh, kiss my keesster!
Now look what ya gone and done?! He's down for the count 'cause
you brought him bad luck. Arrgg. He's a goner."
I cover the phone with my hand and say to Nevar, "Lulie and
I have worked out a plan to get into Dan's apartment."
"It's about time you came to your senses about him," he
says, pain straining every word. The deep lines on his face show
his struggle to buck the pain. This is a man who's not used to
experiencing life from the sidelines.
"He's not there," I say.
"Then why--" Nevar starts to say.
"Because maybe there's something in his apartment that'll
give us a clue where to look for the Spider." Getting back to the
phone, I say, "Who needs luck with a good right hook?"
"Don't give me that crappola. I heard some a what youse
was saying. Whose rights ya want me to trash this time?"
"I need to get around the army camped on your doorstep."
"Nah ya don't."
"All you have to do is set off the fire alarm, and make sure
the goods elevator isn't locked."
"Nah I don't. What the cops want you for anyhows? You
dangling some guy from his balls off some cockamamie balcony?"
"No, they're after Dan. But I need to talk to him before they
do, that's all."
"Talk?! Then why don't ya just shake your little beeehind and
thumb your nose at all those gun-toting hombres outside and--"
"They want to talk to me because they think I'll lead them to
the kidnappers of--"
"That kid? He's gawking back at me in the boob tube right
now. Uh…he says he was rescued by a porn star. Now who'd ya
think that could be, eh?" He laughs. "You're a bowl a cherries, a
real ballsy babe. I'll pull the alarm if you'll give me some stills."
"Yes, yes, but you have to be ready to set off the alarm in
the next few minutes."
"Make that six," Lulie says, getting the truck rolling.

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"First I wanna know when I'm gonna get that bike ride,"
Stanley says. "And no cockamamie bullshit this time, or I swear on
my mother's apple pie, I'm gonna--"
"The Duke is here with me," I say. "So in six minutes make
all hell break loose."
"10-4, and no stills smaller 'n 14 by--" I shut him down.
"Listen, Nevar," I say. "Soon as we get within two blocks of
the Doré, we'll leave you with the truck and--"
"No!" he says and winces. Holding the back of his head, he
adds, "You're not the only one who's earned the right to get a crack
at him."
"For crying out loud!" Lulie intrudes. "I didn't knock his block
off. Have a good look. Nothing's missing." She gives him the once
over with her eyes. "And getting better by the minute."
"The last block and a half, I'm going to race like a maddened
fiend on foot. If you can keep up with me, then you're on," I tell him.
"But you can't rush the pain."
"Or the heart," he says in a low, choking voice then smiles.
There's a warm feeling in that smile, but the jerk is directing it at
her, not me. Eventually, he lets his gaze drift to me like an
afterthought. At least he's not looking at me cross-eyed.
"Lulie's going to divert the attention of the cops by making
them think it's me on the bike," I explain, emptying my jacket
pockets.
"Yessirree," she says. "Seems whenever Rane says my
name, she thinks of a big noise."
"You threw the flare under the cruiser?" he asks.
She nods then shakes her head. "Flare?! Humph! I'd be
throwing my life away if I threw one of those suckers, 'cause the
cops don't take too kindly to being attacked by any weapon, no
how. Get this straight, fella, all I did was create a distraction with a
flashlight and some penny crackers."
"A distraction can be a weapon in and of itself," he says.
"The police are quite capable of defining your distract--"
"Skip it, counselor. All I need for this job is this and the
Duke," she says and shows him a slingshot.
"You aim that thing at anyone, and your love of rocks is
going to land you--" he starts to say.
"I hate 'em," she scoffs. Keeping her hands on the wheel,
she quickly makes a cross with her forefingers. "But I hate the
buzzards who snatched Fitz even more. When we find him, I
wouldn't put that pretty face of yours within smashing distance of
him, if I were you."
"Fitz is--" I jab him in the ribs with my elbow. He gets the
message and says, "Fitz is your connection to this?"

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She nods vigorously. Keeping her gaze on the road, she


takes some rocks out of her jacket pocket and rolls them around in
her hand. "You know how many races I've blown on account of
these murderous devils? You can comb the track for a week. Not a
pebble in sight. Then once the tires hit the course? You guessed it."
"She races bikes," I interject. With my shoulder protesting
like hell, I take off the jacket.
"I find it helps me get hyped for a race by shooting the little
shits at cans," she goes on while stopping the truck. "Don't knock it.
With this thing I can split a pea off your head at fifty paces."
"Snow White, you're going to have to loan me your suit
jacket. Hers is too small." I toss her my jacket.
Wincing, he begins to remove his overcoat but says, "This
cloak and dagger rigmarole is asinine. The police aren't working at
cross purposes with us."
"I have a personal stake in this," I say, my voice rising. "To
quote someone I'm getting to know, they're not the only ones
who've earned the right to get a crack at the Spider."
"But, you're not going to fool anyone with this," he insists.
"As soon as they spot you with me, they'll know it's not you on the
bike."
"Will they?" I say, helping him with the coat.
"The least they'll do is a double take," Lulie joins in, "and in
those seconds the two of you can be on the other side of the door.
Lickety-split."

Six minutes later, with Nevar by my side--winded and


obviously shaky with pain--I slow down and turn the corner onto the
street where I live. It's surprisingly quiet. Perfect haunt for ghost
cars. They're the only vehicles in sight. I unwrap an after dinner
mint I found in Nevar's jacket. Seven minutes and no alarm.
Affecting an air of nonchalance, I pop the candy in my mouth.
Really, what could be less suspicious than two beaten up,
dog-eared yuppies walking to the bus stop to get to work? I slow
down in the face of an incessant urge to run like hell in the opposite
direction.
Eight minutes.
Stanley, don't you dare trade me in for--hell, I can't think of
anything the cops could offer him that he'd relish more than smutty,
slutty stills. So what's keeping him?
Nevar gives me a questioning look.
He's right.
We'd better run for it.
The cell buzzes in Nevar's jacket.
"Chanlee?" he asks.

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"No, my parents. What the hell?" I stop and answer it. After
all, what could be less conspicuous than two beaten up, dog-eared
yuppies yapping on their cell on the way to the bus stop? Not that
the cops give a shit, shoot or shite. They were probably onto us
before we got out of the truck. The idea is to get into the Doré
without them detaining me or moving my goal posts.
"Tori Rane!" my mother screeches. "We've been sick with
worry that you were one of the fire victims. How could you not die in
that fire and keep us in the dark about it? How could you be so
selfish? To your own mother?"
"And father, I might add," Dad says.
"As it happens, I'm on my way to a fire. If I die in this one, I'll
be sure to notify you."
She gasps. "My own daughter…joking about tearing my
heart out."
Nevar slides an arm around my shoulders and whispers in
my ear, "There's a police officer in jeans closing in on us from
behind." We resume walking, and the Doré comes into full view.
"Mom, can't you just be happy I'm alive? I am." I pause to let
her speak, but she waits for me to keep going like I haven't finished
making my point. "Okay, I'm not happy, because Fitz was in that
hou--"
"Not Fitz?!" Dad says over Mom's sobs. "I hate having to tell
you this, Rane, but he left a will and other documents with me
awhile back in case anything should hap--"
"Dad! I don't want to hear that kind of--" I jump at the sound
of the alarm blaring. "Gotta go!"
The cop breaks into a run behind us. Neither of us turns
around. With Nevar's arm still draped over my shoulders, we keep
walking. The cop overtakes us, talking a mile a minute into his cell.
The first one to run out of the building is a stout man, whose
belly starts at his neck. He clutches onto two cats shelved on his
belly, while he clenches the only other thing covering him: a towel
with a woman's bikini-clad backside gracing his privates. I thought
the old bat in 53 would be the first one out. Mind you, the place
would burn down to cinders before she could grab all her dolls.
Where the hell is Lulie? Nevar and I are totally vulnerable
out here. Fruk, the cops have probably confiscated her rocks.
We bury ourselves in the people pouring out behind the man
wearing the bikini. At least when we get inside we'll be spared
having showers, because the Doré was built before sprinklers
became code.
"Stay outta there!" a voice commands behind us.
Suddenly, rap music belches out at us from on high.
"…Gangsta Jones flyin' by his seat beats Jake for the stake to jack
the wacked wigger's bean stalk 'n steps outta the chalk circlin' the

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same game a juicing the feds til the games dead…" Truly da
m'youseek of d'ssfears. Nevar and I enjoy our smiles. But I have to
shake my head. Trust a librarian to know how to grab the attention
of the troops.
We push faster and harder against the tide and plunge into
the lobby. "…ballin' 'n wreckin' da berry…dumm dumm do-yaa
boo-ya dumm…" Oh yeah. The whole place smells of smoke. I
didn't tell Stanley to burn down the fruking place. We push and
dodge our way to the goods elevator. Whew! He remembered to
unlock it.
"If Stanley has any brains at all, he'll be waiting for us up on
the fifth," I say.
There's not a soul in sight as we get out on the fifth.
"Fruk, we need his key to get in," I say.
"We'll just have to kick it down," Nevar says.
As we approach the apartment, the door opens and Stanley
waves us to come inside. "Get a load out," he scolds. "I want youse
outta here. Faster 'n pronto."
I hesitate, while Nevar pushes past him into the apartment.
Equal and opposite reactions to the same realization that Stanley
wouldn't be talking to us now if Dan were around. Sure Nevar is
eager to prove me wrong, but he's even more eager to get to Dan
because he's afraid that if I get to him first, I'll kill the Spider. As for
me, my stomach is pouring acid all over my hopes. Dan's the only
loose end left, but he's gone. And my reasons for believing that the
maggots left any other loose ends that'll lead to the Spider, are
corroding with my hopes.
Stanley watches Nevar with an unsavory glint in his eye.
"So, man, that's what you look like with your clothes on." My
eyebrows shoot up. "Sunday morning, I caught him flashing through
the lobby starkers. Now whose bed ya suppose he got booted
outta, eh?"
"If you're so interested, why don't you ask him for a date?
He's right there." I push past him.
I follow the sounds of a melodic humming that counterpoints
the echoing rap music. It doesn't lead me to Nevar. No, he's
searching through the cupboards, but his lips are drawn tight,
announcing what I feel. His hopes have been reduced to less than
the shadows being cast on the curtains by the projector rigged to
keep the cops blissful in their ignorance. The humming is
emanating from a recorder beside the projector on the coffee table.
With Stanley nagging us to hurry, the rappers egging us on
to jack off with chrome, and Dan's ghost humming Hallelujah, I
search the place with harried thoroughness. The kind of
thoroughness that comes from looking for something you know isn't

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there, but damned well would be if the gods were really taking care
of things like they ought to.
Or gave a damn.
"Move it! We gotta scram," Stanley urges with annoying
impatience. "I don't want no fricking cops combing my butt, looking
for nuttin'."
Nevar points to the door, and I nod.
We've come this far only to end up back at the starting gate.
This time without any leads. Like nothing ever happened, and all I
have to do is awaken and Fitz will be alive. Funny, isn't it? how life
always catches up with death. Part of me wants to jump in the
grave with him. Fruk, I'm so tired. Too tired to seek out a path for
myself in the past. Maybe it's just as well, because the Spider has
dispersed into the future.
And tomorrow?
Tomorrow the Spider will be another day ahead of us all.
When we're in the elevator, Nevar says, "Y